It was Sept. 19, 2005, and the last MX Peacekeeper ballistic missile was being hoisted out of its underground vault in southeast Wyoming. Two hundred forty-two days into President George W. Bush’s second term, one of the most formidable nuclear weapons in the nation's history was trucked off into retirement, following nearly two decades on 24/7 alert.
At the time, a smattering of news headlines noted the quiet milestone.
But what few people realized then—or even in the decade since—is that the Peacekeeper’s exit from the arsenal also marked the disappearance of what the White House regards as an essential facet of U.S. nuclear deterrence: a constant ability to hold virtually all key Russian political and military targets at risk. Should that worst-case scenario play out, Washington also wants to retain enough residual weapons to deter any opportunistic attack by Beijing.
Even before the 10-warhead mega-missile retired, plans were hatched for the Air Force to retrofit MX-like accuracy into remaining land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles, called ICBMs.
But that never happened. Somewhat amazingly, nearly nobody’s noticed.
After a series of fits and starts—marked by bureaucratic infighting and budgetary machinations—the Air Force has left its arsenal of roughly 450 Minuteman 3 missiles with a 1960s-era mechanical guidance system. As the name implies, the guidance system is a component that directs a ballistic missile toward its target.
Minuteman 3’s old missile-guidance technology is accurate enough for striking some potential enemy targets. But hundreds of the missiles would have little chance of damaging their assigned targets—Russia's most valuable war-making assets—as top-secret U.S. nuclear war plans demand, according to government documents and sources privy to closed-door meetings about military requirements.
Many of these aim points are considered “very-hard targets”—like VIP shelters, command-and-control facilities, hardened missile silos and military storage bunkers—buried deep beneath the earth’s surface in reinforced-concrete shelters.
The difficult-to-destroy Russian facilities would be among the White House’s highest priority targets, and the first to be hit, in virtually any nuclear conflict, according to defense insiders. The objective: to swiftly handicap the Kremlin’s ability to inflict any further damage on the United States or its allies.
That’s why U.S. military commanders have assigned the bulk of these targets to ICBMs. The land-based missiles can be launched within minutes of receiving a presidential order, unlike bomber aircraft (which went off alert in 1991) or submarine-based weapons (which may take hours or days to be ready for launch).
“We must demonstrate to potential foes, that if they start a war, we have the capability to win,” Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said in a Feb. 2 speech in Washington. “Because a force that can deter conflict must show that it can dominate a conflict.”
To many Americans, it might seem counterintuitive that even a single nuclear explosion would be anything short of catastrophic, no matter its accuracy. In fact, when a ballistic missile is lobbed against “soft” targets like buildings or people, its devastating nuclear payload would more than compensate for whatever it may lack in precision.
But the vexing accuracy gap isn’t about targeting innocent civilians or ending the world as we know it. If deterring war requires a capacity to limit the damage a nuclear-armed enemy could wreak, both a nuclear blast and pinpoint accuracy are believed required to disable or destroy the hardest targets, according to defense sources.
Air Force briefing slides reviewed by The Daily Beast characterize the Minuteman 3 as being 50 percent less accurate than the MX was. That could mean the difference between disabling a very hard target and leaving it untouched.
“We are no longer able to cover the targets that Peacekeeper covered, ever since Peacekeeper went away,” said one former ICBM operations commander at the squadron and wing levels. “The math is really simple.”
This source and others interviewed for this article asked to remain anonymous. Several said they were concerned the delicate matter would get resolved only after being publicly aired.
Ironically, Carter and the nation’s commander in chief, President Obama, may be unaware that the U.S. arsenal cannot actually accomplish what’s enshrined in the nuclear-contingency blueprints they’ve approved, according to defense sources. The promise of greater accuracy for the land-based missiles reportedly helped lay the groundwork for reductions in the 2011 New START agreement between Washington and Moscow, and many have assumed the precision now exists.
It’s conceivable, strangely enough, that the Kremlin has already taken stock of the U.S. targeting deficiency. Considerable data about the capabilities of U.S. Air Force and Navy ballistic missiles can be found in open sources and online.
It turns out, though, that at least one very important American has noticed the lapse.
Adm. Cecil Haney—a four-star Navy officer who heads U.S. Strategic Command, based in Omaha, Nebraska—says Air Force ICBMs must do a better job of preventing big nuclear rivals from threatening the United States and its allies, according to defense sources and government documents. He and his Pentagon desk-warrior allies appear to be trying to get the matter resolved internally, without resorting to White House intervention.
Solid-state guidance technologies, commercially available today, could lend ICBMs the accuracy Haney insists he needs. Advocates also bill these advanced electronics—routinely installed in commercial aircraft and conventional missile systems—as less than a third of the cost of their mechanic predecessors, safer to operate and easier to maintain. Some investment would be needed to “militarize” solid-state parts to withstand a ballistic missile’s hypersonic flight and nuclear-blast radiation, but much of this development work has already been done.
The so-called Ground Based Strategic Deterrent, or GBSD, missile is to begin replacing Minuteman 3s by 2030. Yet, the next 14 years still may not be enough time to make ballistic missiles accurate enough to meet Haney’s expectations for hard-target damage, some Air Force officials contend. They themselves have delayed development and testing of solid-state guidance systems for ICBMs for so long that GBSD may go forward without it.
Unless they hustle, land-based missiles will remain unable to disable or destroy their toughest assigned targets in a single salvo, according to military insiders and official briefings reviewed by The Daily Beast. Top-secret U.S. war plans call for launching just one warhead per target as a means of minimizing casualties and unintended consequences, defense sources said.
To get a sense of the scale, if just one Minuteman 3 warhead were to detonate in downtown Washington, more than 360,000 people would die and another 620,000 would be injured, according to nuclear weapons expert Alex Wellerstein. Additional untold numbers would be gravely sickened by radiation.
Citing the potential for such a humanitarian disaster, James Miller, a former Defense policy chief, recently told The New York Times he supports more precision in nuclear arms. “Minimizing civilian casualties if deterrence fails is both a more credible and a more ethical approach,” he said.
Peacekeeper left the U.S. arsenal shortly after the Cold War ended and as nuclear tensions with Moscow seemed to be easing. Critics note that 10 years have passed without discernable damage to global nuclear stability, despite the U.S. ground-based arsenal’s dip in accuracy. Some worry that for the United States to initiate a new effort today to boost ICBM precision could escalate tensions with Vladimir Putin.
Haney and his Strategic Command would not address specific questions about the future missile’s capabilities. But asked about plans for GBSD at an Omaha press conference in August 2014, the four-star flag officer did say he expects the Air Force “to make sure that we have the requirements we need now and into the future.”
That may be easier said than done.
Air Force ICBM program officials have said they want to stick with a guidance system more like Minuteman 3’s. They could save money by meeting a lower damage probability than Haney wants, these officials argue.
But the ICBM program headquarters at Hill Air Force Base, Utah, also stands to lose jobs and clout if the advanced accuracy technology is adopted. Repair personnel based at Hill keep busy maintaining the old Minuteman 3 mechanical guidance units, which break down once every three years on average.
By contrast, solid state uses fewer moving parts and can run for 20 years between breakdowns, according to Air Force Research Laboratory data.
“I’d imagine the program office guys want to do as little as they can” to advance solid state, said a former senior official with knowledge of nuclear issues. “[But] I think [using] the same guidance system will be a mistake.”
And then there’s Boeing. The defense industrial powerhouse won a $466 million contract last June to continue its run as the Minuteman 3’s single contractor for missile-guidance repair through 2021. Boeing performs the repairs at its Heath maintenance facility in central Ohio, but much of that work also would evaporate if the Air Force were to embrace solid state.
So the matter is shaping up as a debate over national security versus job stability. Haney is said to be privately fuming.
Behind the scenes, he and his Strategic Command have demanded the Air Force settle for nothing less than meeting his secret war-plan needs, according to defense sources. He recently persuaded the defense secretary’s staff to infuse roughly $65 million into the Air Force budget for developing the GBSD guidance system over the next five years, according to those familiar with as-yet unreleased spending details. That’s a nearly fivefold increase over the service’s earlier spending plans.
The admiral also has gotten the Air Force to include in a draft GBSD acquisition strategy a need for “accuracy exceeding that of the Peacekeeper system,” according to sources familiar with the sensitive document. The new missile’s guidance system additionally must be capable of operating “at least” 17 years without failures, with “improved maintainability” and “reduced system lifecycle cost.”
That wording would seem to set a high bar that only solid-state technologies could meet. But the Air Force has yet to finalize the document.
The service denied repeated requests for interviews about the matter. Bruce Schmidt, a deputy director for strategic deterrence and nuclear integration at the Air Force Materiel Command at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio, said in an email that it is “premature to comment” on whether the new missile would use solid state or some other technology for its guidance system.
Maj. Melissa Milner, an Air Force spokeswoman, said the service wouldn’t narrow down various technology options until after 2017. A final selection would be made in 2020 or later. She would not comment on the delays or their ramifications.
Elaine M. Grossman is a prize-winning investigative reporter who writes about national security and foreign affairs.