The Pentagon is embarking on an ambitious new plan to develop and build a next generation nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missile. But experts question if the U.S. military really needs to spend billions of dollars on a new missile when the service’s current Minuteman III could easily be refurbished and used for decades to come.
Moreover, there are serious questions about whether the U.S. even needs a land-based ICBM—especially when the Congressional Budget Office is projecting that the American taxpayer is on the hook for at least $348 billion over the ten years to pay for its range of air-, sea-, and land-based nuclear weapons.
A number of experts—including Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel—have written that land-based ICBMs are only really useful against single foe: Russia. But there are other nuclear adversaries on the horizon, including China, North Korea, and even Iran. Against them, Hagel and others have written, such weapons would be largely ineffective because they would have to overfly Russian airspace.
“The Government is preparing to acquire a replacement for the MM III [Minuteman III] intercontinental ballistic missile system that replaces the entire flight system,” reads an Air Force document of posted on the Federal Business Opportunities website on Jan. 23. “The new weapon system will use the existing Mk12A and Mk21 Reentry Vehicles (RV) in the single and multiple RV configurations. The remainder of the missile stack will be replaced.”
But arms control advocates say that the Pentagon is looking for something it doesn’t need. “There is no need to build a new ICBM,” Kingston Reif, director for disarmament and threat reduction policy at the Arms Control Association, told The Daily Beast. “RAND did a report last year showing that the United States can maintain the ICBM leg of the [nuclear] triad [of bombers, ballistic missile submarines and land-based missiles] for decades to come by simply pursuing refurbishment,” Reif said. “That would be much cheaper.”
The counter argument is that though the Minuteman III has been refurbished many times, the older the weapon gets, the harder and more difficult it is to maintain. That means that the Pentagon would have to spend ever increasing sums of money to keep the 40-year-old Minuteman III viable. The Air Force wants to field the new ICBM “in the 2027 timeframe” due to Minuteman’s rocket and guidance ageing-out and not having enough spare missiles lying around.
Yet the missiles aren’t quite the creaky old machines they appear to be. In recent years, the missiles’ engines, guidance systems, and other parts have been replaced.
According to the Congressional Budget Office, it costs about $2.6 billion per year to maintain the ICBM force. That sounds like alot—it is a lot—but it’s a relative pittance, compared to the cash needed to maintain the other legs of the nuclear triad. And building replacements from scratch could cost much more. Further, the Pentagon could save a lot of money by reducing the number of existing ballistic missiles. “The ICBM force is the least important leg of the triad,” Reif said.
The Air Force’s ICBM force is largely designed to be a sponge to absorb part of a massive hypothetical Cold War-style Soviet nuclear attack. “An adversary would have to fire hundreds, if not thousands, of missiles to eliminate that leg of the triad,” Reif said. The only potential adversary capable of doing so is Russia—China only has about 100 missiles that are able to hit U.S. territory.
A 2012 report co-authored by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, among others, made a similar argument, that land-based ICBMs are only useful against Russia. That is because to hit other potential targets like China, Iran and North Korea, the missiles would have to overfly Russia.
“ICBMs can only support nuclear wartime operations against Russia because current-generation ICBMs fired from the existing three bases on their minimum energy trajectories have to overfly Russia and China to reach targets in potentially adversarial third countries (e.g., Iran, North Korea), and fly dangerously close to Russia to reach Syria,” reads the 2012 Global Zero U.S. Nuclear Policy Commission Report. “U.S. ICBMs would also have to overfly Russia to reach targets in China.”
Therefore, Reif noted, ICBMs are inherently inflexible weapons that are of limited utility. But getting rid of them is extremely controversial, even if they are more or less costly white elephants.
Mark Gunzinger, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments and former Air Force B-52 pilot, disagreed. He told The Daily Beast that maintain a nuclear triad of bombers, missile submarines and ICBMs is necessary. “Without a land-based ICBM, we would be in a situation where an enemy would only need to strike a very small number of targets to greatly diminish our strategic deterrence posture,” he said. “We have three bases for nuclear-capable bombers and two bases for SSBNs [ballistic missile submarines]. SSBNs at sea during an unannounced, ‘bolt from the blue’ nuclear strike would be secure, but the entire boomer fleet is not at sea during peacetime.”
But even if an enemy nuclear first strike eliminated the bomber and submarine bases, there are a number of Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines at sea at all times. Those submarines can carry up to 24 Trident D5 submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBM) each carrying multiple warheads. Those submarines would be able to launch a devastating counter-attack on any enemy or combination of enemies. “That would ruin anyone’s day,” Rief said.
The U.S. Navy is already planning on shelling out over $100 billion to develop and build a new fleet of ballistic missile submarines. While the Navy is refurbishing its fleet of Trident IIs nuclear missiles, it it, for now, deferring the construction of new ones; part of the reasoning for that is the exorbitant cost of the weapons, Reif said. The Navy is already fretting over how the bill for those submarines will impact the rest of its fleet.
Meanwhile the Air Force has embarked on a project to build a new extremely stealthy Long-Range Strike Bomber and associated Long-Range Standoff (LRSO) nuclear-tipped cruise missiles. The Air Force hopes to buy between 80 and 100 of the new nuclear-capable stealth bombers for roughly $550 million each—plus the cost of development for both the aircraft and the LRSO missile. Meanwhile, the Pentagon and Department of Energy will shell out $6.8 billion to develop a new nuclear warhead for the new LRSO cruise missile.
Now, on top of the expense of building a ballistic missile submarine for $4.9 billion each—if we’re lucky—a new bomber and a new cruise missile, the Pentagon wants to buy a new ICBM, Reif said.
It’s a decision that comes as a surprise to some arms control experts. “I was very interested to see that because up to this point I was operating under the assumption that the Air Force had yet to decide how exactly they would pursue a follow-on to the Minuteman III,” Reif said.
Even the CBO—which issued a report earlier this month on the cost of maintaining America’s nuclear forces through 2024—seems to have been caught by surprise. “The department plans to operate the current Minuteman III ICBM through 2030. Although it is considering several options for fulfilling the ICBM’s mission after 2030—such as refurbishing existing missiles, developing a new missile, or both—its plans are not final,” reads the CBO report.
The CBO had anticipated that Air Force would defer developing a new missile until it had completed refurbishing its existing weapons—which would have saved some money over the long-term.
But as the Air Force document indicates, the Pentagon is already getting the ball rolling to replace its Minuteman III arsenal. But why now?
“There is a lot that must be done before the Air Force finalizes key performance parameters for a new ICBM and issues an RFP [request for proposals] to industry,” Gunzinger said. “A replacement missile will then have to be developed, tested, launched, and go through a certification process to ensure it will be safe and reliable. This takes time. Developing a non-nuclear major weapon system typically takes ten or more years. This is something that we want to take the time to do right—it is about sustaining our nations strategic deterrence posture.”
Another part major reason is that defense companies need the Pentagon’s business to keep missile engineers busy. While arm-manufacturers like Lockheed Martin—which builds the Navy’s Trident D5 nuclear missile—still have the engineers to develop a new missile, they might not in a few years.
The Russians—whose industry imploded in the years since the collapse of the Soviet Union—have had all sorts of troubles building new nuclear missiles to replace their old Cold War-era hardware. Without a new project to work on, engineers and factory workers find other jobs—since people have families to feed. “It would be interesting to ask industry if the answer would still be ‘yes’ [we have the engineering talent] if a new ICBM program were delayed another ten years,” Gunzinger said.
Gnzinger admits that a new ICBM will be expensive, but said it is a necessary price to pay. “It will be expensive, but maintaining our nation’s strategic deterrence posture is worth the investment,” he said. “I would never try to evaluate the cost effectiveness of our nuclear triad from the ‘will it be used in combat’ perspective. Rather, we should ask what is needed to ensure that it is never used and our enemies understand that a nuclear act of aggression against the United States risks a devastating response.”