Emerging Nuclear Challenges

by PETER HUESSY July 26, 2017

The United States is facing a series of nuclear challenges, including maintaining our central strategic nuclear deterrent, stopping the use of small numbers of nuclear weapons against us by terrorists or rogue regimes, and ensuring that our allies and friends are also protected from nuclear attack.

While related, each of these pose unique challenges. While deterrence and homeland defense have been 100% perfect in stopping any use of nuclear weapons against the United States for over 70 years, and while the hope is that continued vigilance by our country will continue that record, there are no guarantees of future success.

But most importantly, we should take whatever action is needed to improve deterrence and defense, and we should definitely avoid making decisions that will undermine either. Key is to modernize our land based missile deterrent, a plan some small dozens of House and Senate members have recently declared probably unnecessary, including the ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee.

The Russians and the Chinese are way ahead of us in deploying-building and putting the force in the field-new nuclear armed (1) land based missiles, (2) submarines and their associated missiles, and (3) bombers and cruise missiles. These dual country modernization programs were started over a decade ago and have accelerated even as American nuclear modernization efforts were delayed and underfunded.

Although the American nuclear posture review is not completed, it is fairly apparent the new administration will fund a robust nuclear modernization effort. The reason is simple: each of our three legs of our nuclear forces---land based missiles, submarines and bombers-are at or near their life expectancy and are in danger of rusting to obsolescence. And the cost of maintaining the current force beyond current plans is very high, and exceeds even the cost of new, replacement systems.

So obviously the smart plan is to modernize.

In addition, an effort to extend the life of some of these systems and forgo modernization is fraught with danger. For example, our 14 Trident submarines will have a hull life of 42 years, the longest ever in the history of the submarine US Navy, and assessments show they cannot be extended any further without a risk of a catastrophic collapse.

As for our land based missiles, the fuel and guidance systems can be maintained in the near term, but beyond 2030 would cost more than the new modernized ground based strategic deterrent (GBSD) missile replacement planned for the end of the next decade and be technologically untenable. None of this is conjecture-it is based on solid fact and analysis. 

Particularly critical are the 450 land based Minuteman missiles scheduled for replacement and modernization with the GBSD. Contrary to sloppy thinking of nuclear modernization opponents, the land based missiles are highly survivable, have very high alert rates and thus cannot be easily targeted. They are also quick to their targets which denies an adversary the use of their own weapons, and are also highly affordable.

Let us examine each of these points in turn.

It is true that land based missiles are in fixed silos. But while their locations are known, they are spread out over three military bases in five states cumulatively the size of Texas, or nearly 700,000 square miles. This has led to some confused analysis. For example, one long-time opponent of land based missiles correctly explained at a recent conference that a country such as Russia would be crazy-"irrational to the extreme"  to try and take out all 400 Minuteman missiles silos and their 48 associated launch control centers, as it would require the use of nearly 1000 warheads launched simultaneously. But then in the same breath, the critic justified his opposition to Minuteman by claiming the missiles were vulnerable to a surprise attack from the very same country-Russia-and thus must be deemed "vulnerable" and "destabilizing". In that no rationale adversary would attack three American Minuteman bases, the missiles in their silos are perfectly safe.

What about the nearly 100% alert rates? They are also a positive characteristic of the Minuteman missiles. No adversary can assume that the missiles will take days or weeks to respond to an attack. Given their accuracy, (which the new system will improve), the military targets of our adversaries are at risk from being destroyed and cannot be assumed to remain in a sanctuary, free to be launched against the United States or our allies.

In fact, since 1962 when the first Minuteman missile was deployed, the Minuteman missile has been on alert, ready to go, for nearly 32 million minutes, with no President ever during that time ordering the missiles to be launched. That is an impressive record of deterrence. Thus it is clear Minuteman stands watch and deters continuously including deterring any regional use of nuclear weapons.

As for affordability, the chart below from expert analysts Todd Harrison of the Center for Strategic and International Studies illustrates just that. Over the 12 years from FY15-26, Minuteman and GBS would cost $30 billion (in then-year dollars) to maintain and modernize, respectively, or an average of $3 billion annually, or about what Americans spend going to the movies every 3 months. That compares to the current funding of close to $2 billion a year, implying a modernization effort of an extra $1 billion annually, or less than what Uncle Sam will spend in 2026 every 90 minutes.  

huessy july 2017 graph minutemen

In short, the new land based missiles-as are the current Minuteman missiles-- will be highly survivable, affordable, and hold at risk the appropriate assets our adversaries highly value. As they have for the past nearly six decades, the land based missiles will maintain deterrence, keep adversaries from stepping across the nuclear threshold and reassure our allies that they can rely upon our nuclear deterrent forces to keep them safe as well. 

Peter R. Huessy is Director for Strategic Deterrent Studies at the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies as well as President of Geostrategic Analysis, a defense consulting firm he founded in 1981. He is also a guest lecturer on nuclear deterrent policy at the U.S. Naval Academy and formerly Senior Fellow in National Security at the American Foreign Policy Council and JINSA.


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