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.

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