The Nation’s ICBM Force: Increasingly Creaky Broken Missiles

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Air Force photo / Tech. Sgt. Bob Wickley

Staff Sgt. Kevin Gorney checks out the electrical system aboard an LGM-30F Minuteman III missile in its silo, Jan. 1, 1980.

As the Air Force begins to dust off plans for the Minuteman III ICBM replacement, a stark choice faces the service.

On one hand, the time has come to replace them. On the other, the Air Force is strapped for cash, victim to a perfect storm of bureaucratic bloat, several rounds of defense cuts, and a fighter fleet exhausted by war and age.

The purpose of our strategic deterrent is simple: prevent nuclear weapons from ever being used. And the current Minuteman III inter-continental ballistic missile system, long in the tooth at 40 years old, is the foundation of that strategy.

The Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile was first deployed during the Nixon Administration. Though the missiles have been swapped out with a new skin and innards, the Air Force still uses the same ancient command and control infrastructure.

That technology, which the USAF uses to control and monitor the missiles, is crumbling:

— There’s more computing power in a first-generation iPhone than our ICBM force.
— Some replacement parts were built by companies that went out of business decades ago.
— Simple day-to-day tasks, routine during the peak of the Cold War, now take hours of wrench-turning, just to keep the deterrent on its feet.

The question staring down a cash-crunched Air Force is one of priorities.

With budgetary and political pressures closing in, some elected officials (and no doubt some military leaders) may be singing the siren’s song of abandoning the nuclear triad for a diad. Drop the missiles (some say), and leave deterrence for the submarines and bombers.

If the triad stays, as it should, the Air Force faces another tough choice.

The Minuteman fleet is on its last legs. A new system presents challenges that were foreign during the Cold War. Digging new, survivable underground bunkers could run afoot of a mountain of environmental regulations written after the Minuteman IIIs first went on alert. If the ICBMs went mobile, on roads or railways like the Russians or Chinese are wont to do, people near travel routes could create challenging political pressures.

Regardless, the USAF has signaled to Congress that it will press ahead with an ICBM replacement.

North Korea and Iran have both cracked the technology needed to field an alert force of long-range missiles, and are at varying stages of putting warheads on their delivery systems. Further, with Russia and China fielding robust, modernized triads of new missiles, subs, and bombers — and the United States’ deterrent serving as the West’s last nuclear triad (France has a diad, Britain is down to just a submarine deterrent), there’s little doubt U.S. military leaders are uncomfortable with the potential imbalance in the world’s strategic arsenals.

If your mission is to prevent nuclear weapons from ever being used – and ours is precisely that — imbalance is the enemy.

As former defense secretary Robert Gates said, the nuclear genie is out of the bottle. Our record in keeping the nuclear club exclusive has been terrible since the end of the Cold War (Iran, Pakistan, North Korea), despite historic reductions to our own force.

If we’re serious about ensuring nuclear weapons are never used in anger, we’re going to have to make some tough — and long-overdue — choices that keep our record of peaceful coexistence with other nuclear powers intact.

Matthew Vanderschuere is a former Minuteman III launch officer and flight commander for the 320th Missile Squadron. He is currently a PhD student at American University and a captain in the U.S. Air Force Reserve.


The Minuteman is a first-strike weapon. Labeling it a "deterrent" is nothing more than a twisted rationalization for a Cold War weapon system that, because of its fixed nature, must be used before any incoming missiles wipe it out. It increasingly seems as if the only people in favor of maintaining land-based missiles are politicians in the ICBM Caucus (states that get jobs from the system) and Air Force brass concerned about losing a system that they imagine makes them relevant in the 21st century.


Modernizing?  Replacing?  Who can afford either and who will these things be used against?  What a scam.......

DennisBrown 1 Like

What a joke the DoD has played on the Amerikan people/taxpayer; a country that spends yearly more than the top thirty economic powers on defense combined buying over priced ships and aircraft has let the most important part of its military force decay like so much unwanted/neede junk. Only in amerika joke of a political system - buy what the lobbist ate selling, not what is really needed; yes, go to war with the army you have, not want because you wasted thousands of billions of dollars on pork for the rich investors who really own all the defense companies. Amerikians - stupid suckers once and always as the elite get the gold and all the rest fight like crabs for scraps. 

jalefkowit 1 Like

I tend to agree with the author about the importance of modernizing the nuclear force. That being said, I'm not sure "there’s more computing power in a first-generation iPhone than our ICBM force" is a very compelling argument in that direction. Raw computing power isn't necessarily as important for this sort of thing as reliability is, and the more sophisticated any technical project becomes the more prone it becomes to bugs. (While the force's current systems may be old, I'd wager that also means their bugs and problems have been extensively explored and documented by this point. New systems would start that process all over again.) Additionally, large and complex projects provide more space for security vulnerabilities that can be exploited by hostile parties. 

So I'd be less concerned about how the ICBM force's command & control links stack up relative to consumer tech products than about whether they can carry out their mission in the most reliable and secure manner possible.


@jalefkowitI think part of the modernization effort would be to design missiles that have some ability to defeat anti-missile systems. I'm sure there are other upgrades the Air Force would like, and I'm sure whatever they do, it will cost more than it does today, even if we reduce our ICBM fleet by 50% or more.


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