America is finally, thankfully, modernizing our nuclear program
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For the first time in nearly 35 years, the United States is back on track to modernize its entire nuclear deterrent.

After previously approving the building of 12 new Columbia class submarines and a new B-21 nuclear-capable bomber, the United States has selected two contractors to compete to build the next land based intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) nuclear deterrent. This would be the first new land based ICBM since the Peacekeeper missile was deployed in 1986 and completes a nuclear modernization effort plan promised by the administration. 

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An effective, credible and stable nuclear deterrent defends America and its allies from the existential threat of nuclear attack. With China and Russia both vigorously modernizing their own nuclear forces, the misguided nuclear procurement holiday that the United States has been on since the end of the Cold War now officially has come to an end.

The U.S. Air Force (USAF) announced on August 20, 2017, the selection of Boeing and Northrop Grumman as the two competing candidates to build the next land based ICBM known as the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD).  

This contract award also ends a debate in Washington whether the existing Minuteman ICBM missile force could simply be extended for another few decades. Minuteman previously went through a nearly twenty-year service life extension of its guidance and propulsion systems between 1995-2015, and that kept the system viable through 2030 as required by law. A subsequent similar process simply is not cost effective according to all senior USAF nuclear and budget officials.

Today’s world is a troubled place.

North Korea continues to threaten the United States and its allies with nuclear attack. Russia has for the past decade successively threatened the United States and its European allies with nuclear attack. China in an earlier 2017 series of statements made it clear its nuclear forces could easily incinerate America’s largest cities. Despite the 2015 agreement to temporarily curtail Iran’s nuclear ambitions, that potential threat also looms large in the Middle East.

In light of these strategic realities, it is imperative that America fully modernize its own nuclear deterrent, as well of course it’s conventional and space capabilities. Land based ICBMs have played a key role in the nuclear deterrent peace of the past seventy years, being first deployed    the very October 1962 day President Kennedy announced that Soviet missiles were being deployed in Cuba. As Kennedy would later underscore, “Minuteman was my ace in the hole” in successfully resolving the Cuban missile crisis.

Then as now our land based ICBMs are critically important to our security.

First, having 400 deployed ICBMs across five western states, spread out over tens of thousands square miles, means any adversary will always find it impossible to destroy them all in an attempted disarming first strike. Including the spare silos and launch control facilities, that target set approaches 500. Successfully destroying all these assets simultaneously is simply not possible given the current strategic balance.  That means — contrary to popular perception — our land based ICBMs are both stabilizing and survivable.

Second, this reality ensures that in a crisis, the president can count on our land based ICBMs for whatever deterrent mission is required.

Third, our current Minuteman — and new GBSD missiles — both will deploy one warhead, although as a hedge both will be capable of a higher number. But compared to the last ICBM we deployed — the Peacekeeper with 10 warheads — the new land based missiles under current conditions will be very unattractive targets. A Russian adversary would have to probably use 2 warheads to effectively take out each missile silo, a bad exchange. That makes for better strategic stability.

Fourth, even if theoretically possible to take out our GBSD missile silos, our complimentary sea-launched ballistic missiles carried in submarines, and our bombers carrying gravity bombs and cruise missiles could be launched against the aggressor with devastating effect.

That is the deterrent nuclear Triad we are seeking to rebuild over the next decade. 

Fifth, the new land based missile will be more accurate, durable and adaptable, will reduce the lifecycle costs below the current Minuteman III, and will remain the least expensive means of maintaining a nuclear deterrent on a day to day basis. Over the next decade, the new GBSD program will consume about 2 percent of the USAF budget.

Sixth, connectivity to the land based missiles is secure and reliable The GBSD will remain the most responsive leg of the Triad to a Presidential order. Fears of an unauthorized or accidental launch are unfounded.

Seventh, whether at peace or during a crisis, the new land based missiles, like the current Minuteman, will remain in the same posture 24/7/365, leaving a highly stabilizing force that need not engender reckless behavior by any of our adversaries — especially during a crisis. 

Eighth, the GBSDS will be more flexible and modular than the existing ‘60’s era Minuteman design, allowing it to more effectively, efficiently and affordably adapt to changing threat and technology environments. GBSD will thus ensure the continued credibility of the land-based leg of the Triad.

Finally, once completed, the new GBSD force will remain in place for the better part of five decades. As it has been for the 32 million minutes the Minuteman has been on alert since 1962, the GBSD will similarly act as a key deterrent to keep the peace.

The ICBM force will continue to be as President Kennedy declared, “My ace in the hole.” 

Lt. Gen. David Deptula, USAF (ret), is dean of the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies of the Air Force Association, a nonpartisan policy research institute.

Peter Huessy is the director of Strategic Deterrent Studies at the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies of the Air Force Association.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.