• It seems that the U.S., without a Minuteman missile force, would make it easy -- in fact tempting -- for an adversary such as Russia to take out the entire U.S. strategic nuclear force in one or a series of very limited first strikes.

  • Under Secretary Perry's proposal, the U.S. "target set" of nuclear submarines and bombers would consist of five military bases: three for bombers and two for submarines, and a handful of submarines at sea. From over 500 targets today, to fewer than 10. It would be as if the U.S. declared to its enemies, "Come and get us."

  • The elimination of the Minuteman missile force, recommended by Dr. Perry, would leave Russia with an alarming ratio -- nearly 200:1 -- of Russian warheads to American nuclear assets. This disparity could push the strategic nuclear balance toward heightened instabilities.

  • Another way to look at it is that the Minuteman would cost only 1/3 of 1% of the total current budget of the Department of Defense.

Former Secretary of Defense William Perry calls for the nuclear land based force of 450 Minuteman missiles to be eliminated. He says that the United States does not need the missiles for nuclear deterrence. He also says that, because of Russia's current reckless and cavalier attitude about the early use of Russian nuclear weapons, he worries that in a crisis, an American President might launch Minuteman missiles out of fear that Russia might preemptively launch a first strike against America's "vulnerable" missile silos.

Although the former Secretary of Defense is to be admired for his previous work on stealth technology, now part of the backbone of America's strategic nuclear bomber force[1], his recommendation on land-based missiles is, in fact, dangerous, wrong-headed and will lead to the very destabilizing relations with Russia he is hoping to avert.

There are five key reasons why his proposal makes little sense.

First, the U.S. is not in an arms race with Russia -- a competition Dr. Perry fears would be fueled by going forward with the Minuteman. America's strategic (long-range) forces happen to be limited -- as are those of Russia -- by the 2010 New Start Treaty between the two superpowers. Strategic nuclear warheads are capped at 1550. If anything, Russia is rapidly modernizing, ostensibly within those limits, while the United States is trying -- slowly -- to catch up.

Although special bomber-counting rules in the treaty allow both nuclear powers to field more bomber weapons than are officially counted in the treaty ceilings (a bomber with 8-12 bombs counts only as "one" bomb or warhead), both the "fast flyer" American missiles of the land-based Minuteman nuclear force and the Ohio class submarines are strictly capped -- including any new modernized force -- through 2025.[2]

The last time the U.S. modernized the Minuteman force was between 1993-2008. Then, under the START I and Moscow treaties, deployed U.S. nuclear weapons were reduced from roughly 12,000 to 2,200.[3] During that entire period, Minuteman modernization served a stabilizing role, and was fully compatible with arms control -- as remains true today.

Second, the Minuteman missile force is not in any way in danger of being launched or used recklessly or inadvertently.[4]

The nuclear force the U.S. now maintains consists of:

  • 450 silo-based land-based missiles and their associated launch control centers;
  • 60 nuclear-capable bombers at three bases;
  • 14 deployed nuclear submarines at two additional bases, of which 4-6 are at sea at any one time.

These make America's early use of nuclear weapons in a crisis unnecessary. Why? The U.S. nuclear force, including a robust ICBM fleet, cannot as a whole be eliminated in a first strike by an adversary without prompting a massive U.S. retaliatory strike in return. As noted, there are more than 500 ICBM-related American nuclear targets spread over five extremely large Western states, plus submarines in the vast expanse of the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. In a first strike, all of these forces would have to be eliminated simultaneously by an adversary to prevent the U.S. from being able to launch a devastating response.

As U.S. assets are different distances from Russian missile launch points, the flight times of Russian missiles to U.S. missile silos, and submarine and bomber bases, would be different. Russian missiles therefore could not be launched simultaneously from Russia without arriving on U.S. soil at different times.

Thus, under current conditions, an adversary could not attack all U.S. assets simultaneously.

If an adversary were to set their computers for launches to compensate for the differences missile flight times, the U.S. would be warned by its satellites, which would detect the first missile launch. The U.S. could then go on full alert, and send bombers into the air and submarines out to sea.

Even to try such an attack, an adversary such as Russia would, ironically, have to give ample warning. To carry out such a surprise attack, involving so many warheads, Russia, just as an example, would have to generate (visibly deploy) its nuclear forces, and move its land-based missiles from garrison positions into the field, or move its submarines out to sea. These force movements would easily be seen by U.S. reconnaissance satellites, which exist precisely to provide the United States with a warning. There would therefore be time to generate U.S. nuclear forces and make them even more survivable than they would be on a normal, peaceful day-to-day basis. The adversary's element of surprise then would be eliminated.

It is true that during the height of the Cold War, there was indeed a fear that during a political crisis the U.S. might feel a need to "go first," ("prompt launch") its nuclear missiles. At that time, the Soviets fielded an enormous arsenal of nearly 12,000 strategic nuclear warheads, most on fast-flying nuclear-tipped missiles. Due to the relative vulnerability of U.S. nuclear forces, it was feared that, in a crisis, the Soviet leaders might be tempted to use their nuclear weapons first. Their aim would be to destroy as much of the U.S. nuclear forces "on the ground" before they could be launched in retaliation. Such fears might, in turn, prompt the U.S. into "beating them to the punch."[5]

There was also then the concern that, in a crisis, as the Soviet Union would have plenty of warheads left over after a first strike -- still far in excess of what the U.S. had left in reserve -- the U.S. could be coerced to stand down and surrender even before a shot was fired.

Today, however, given the comparatively low level of strategic nuclear weapons now fielded by both Washington and Moscow -- 90% below the Cold War levels -- and their improved relative survivability, such fears no longer apply. Russia would have to use nearly its entire nuclear arsenal just to try to take out America's hundreds of Minuteman missile silos and launch control centers. But even if successful -- an extremely dubious proposition -- Russia still would have to worry about America's submarines at sea, as well as its bombers, launching a devastating response.

In short, even if one leg of the U.S. nuclear Triad were eliminated, the other two would remain able to fight back. Taking out all three simultaneously is an unfeasible a task; taking out only one leg makes no sense.

America's robust Triad of forces -- land, sea and air -- gives the U.S. a stability that makes the successful first use of nuclear forces by either side a virtual impossibility; no rational objective could be achieved.

The U.S. nuclear "Triad" consists of nuclear warheads mounted on platforms based at sea, in the air and on land.

The third point is that if the current Minuteman force were eliminated through obsolescence or attrition, ironically the very international instabilities feared by Dr. Perry -- such as Russian leader using nuclear weapons in a crisis -- would emerge in a dramatic fashion.

Certainly, Russian President Vladimir Putin's statements about Russia's nuclear doctrine are indeed cause for concern, especially his oft-repeated remarks that he would use nuclear weapons early in a crisis and against non-nuclear armed states.

But if that is true, it seems that the United States, without a Minuteman force, would make it easy -- in fact tempting -- for an adversary such as Russia to take out the entire U.S. strategic nuclear force in one or a series of very limited, even surreptitious, first strikes? Under Secretary Perry's proposal, the U.S. "target set" of nuclear submarines and bombers would consist of five military bases: three for bombers and two for submarines, and a handful of submarines at sea. That is it. From over 500 targets today, to fewer than 10 in the future. It would be as if the United States painted a bulls-eye on its nuclear forces and told our enemies, "Come and get us."

As the former U.S. Chief of Naval Operations warned, a serious concern within the US Navy is that technological advances may render the oceans 'transparent' in the future, and U.S. submarines at sea would no longer be invulnerable to attack. If the seas were no longer opaque, Russia could over time surreptitiously eliminate American submarines deployed at sea. Then, in a crisis, Russia might seek to hold remaining U.S. assets at risk, either in port or on base, and try to coerce the U.S. to stand down and surrender.

Again, why would the United States make it easier for its enemies to accomplish such an objective? America's intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), the Minuteman force, are an insurance policy against such a potential eventuality.

Fourth, what about strategic stability? Compared to the current situation, in which Russian nuclear forces now have three nuclear weapons for each of America's nuclear assets of bombers, submarines and land-based missiles, the elimination of the Minuteman force, as Dr. Perry recommends, would leave Russia with an alarming ratio -- nearly 200:1 -- of Russian warheads to American nuclear assets. This disparity could push the strategic nuclear balance toward heightened instabilities -- exactly the opposite of what nearly five decades of strategic arms control between the United States and Russia have sought to prevent. With such a huge advantage, would not Russia be tempted in a crisis to try and eliminate our relatively small nuclear deterrent?[6]

Finally, fifth, the cost of maintaining the Minuteman force is minimal compared to the overall cost of running the U.S. government, the U.S. military and the U.S. nuclear enterprise. Each year, the Minuteman missiles cost around $1.6 billion, including all soldiers, operations and maintenance, research, development and acquisition. Projected Minuteman costs for nuclear modernization in the future are $2.2 billion for 3-5 years, then gradually returning to roughly their current level of expenditures.[7]

Thus at its peak, Minuteman would cost about 20% of what Americans now pay to go to movies theaters each year. Another way to look at it is that the Minuteman would cost only 7% of the peak future nuclear Triad modernization costs per year. This comes to 1/3 of 1% of the total current budget of the Department of Defense, or an astoundingly small $1 out of every $2,500 dollars the Federal government will spend in 2025 -- the same year the Minuteman modernization effort would be ramped up.

In short, from the perspective of maintaining deterrence, strategic stability, the ability to be effective during a crisis, and using defense dollars wisely, the Minuteman force is an extraordinary asset, a required modernization, and critical to the security of our country and allies.

Eliminating Minuteman would not only be dangerous but unwise.

[1] See for example "Inside the Stealth Bomber", by Bill Sweetman (2009) and "Nuclear Inertia: US Weapons Policy After the Cold War" by Tom Sauer (2005).

[2] The ICBM and SLBM missiles possessed by both Russia and the United States are capped under the New Start Treaty at no more than 700. This limit also includes whatever strategic bombers the U.S. has in the field or what are referred to in military parlance as "deployed". Missiles, as they take roughly 30 minutes to reach their targets half way around the globe, are termed "fast flyers" by nuclear experts. The 2010 New Start treaty lasts until 2020 and can be extended by mutual agreement for an additional five years.

[3] The United States funded a life extension program for the Minuteman propulsion and guidance systems beginning in 1993 and extending through most of the first decade of the 21st century. The cost was roughly $6 billion for the propulsion and guidance systems for all 600 deployed and test missiles. The Minuteman missile will now last through 2030.

[4] Steven Young, January 9, 2015, Union of Concerned Scientists, "Obama's Nuclear Legacy #2: Ending Prompt Launch." The professional literature on prompt launch, or the supposed "hair trigger" status of Minuteman, has been reviewed by this author in many essays, including: "Nuclear Deterrence: Painting a Bull's Eye On the US" and "Should the U.S. De-Alert Its Nuclear Missiles?"

[5] This possibility -- of the Soviets in a crisis credibly threatening to fire their nuclear weapons first --was the basis of President Reagan's concern over what he termed a growing "window of vulnerability" during the 1970s. The Soviet Union was publicly proclaiming that the "correlation of forces" was moving in Moscow's direction. The heart of the issue was the vulnerability of U.S. land-based missiles, in particular the US response in 1986 of putting Peacekeeper ICBM missiles in silos. This issue is wrongly (and derisively) covered in Lou Cannon's "The Role of a Lifetime," 2008 (p.135-145), but is correctly explained in a new study, "Inside the Cold War from Marx to Reagan" (pp.263-93) by Sven Kraemer, American Foreign Policy Council, 2015.

[6] The SALT I treaty of 1972 allowed a ratio of Soviet warheads to American nuclear assets of roughly 7 to1; the SALT II treaty of 1979 (never ratified by either country) would have allowed that number to grow to more than 11 to 1. The START I treaty brought that number down to roughly 5 to 1; the 2002 Moscow Treaty brought that number down even further to roughly 4.3 to 1; and the New START treaty lowered that number to 3.5 to 1. Adopting the Perry proposal would increase this ratio to 200 to 1.

[7] These projected numbers were provided by various experts in the USAF during weekly meetings on Minuteman and ICBM modernization during the past few years.

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