The importance of intercontinental ballistic missiles to nuclear defense

The importance of intercontinental ballistic missiles to nuclear defense
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How much should our strategic nuclear deterrent cost? What should it look like? There is still bipartisan support, even long after the end of the Cold War, for keeping strategic nuclear weapons as a foundation for United States national security. However, the cost is getting steep. The Department of Defense and Department of Energy have begun to plan, program, and budget a modernization of American nuclear forces at a cost that could exceed $1 trillion over the next two to three decades.

While House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam SmithDavid (Adam) Adam SmithLet's talk about education and school choice in 2020 Overnight Defense: Lawmakers on edge over Iran tensions | Questions rise after State pulls personnel from Iraq | Senators demand briefing | House panel advances 0B Pentagon spending bill | Warren offers plan on climate threats to military House Dems unveil bill to limit Pentagon's ability to transfer military construction dollars MORE supports nuclear modernization, he is an outspoken critic of the overall costs of the program. He hosted a recent hearing with nuclear experts to debate modernization costs. During the hearing, one of the experts advocated for transitioning from a triad to a “monad” featuring only nuclear submarines, while retiring the nuclear bomber and intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) forces. Those who argue for completely eliminating ICBMs, in particular, do not seem to fully appreciate their strategic attributes.


The argument against ICBMs is not new. Numerous senior government and defense officials have publicly claimed ICBMs should be scrapped. Advocates of retaining ICBMs state that they present a complicated targeting challenge for an opponent contemplating a first strike. Because ICBMs launched in retaliation would be fast and accurate, a first strike must destroy them immediately. This requirement presents would be attackers to simultaneously cover in excess of 400 targets requiring almost instant elimination in order to deliver a nuclear knockout punch.

However, advocates often fail to mention one of the most important attributes of ICBMs, which is their location. While costly, their location is key to the continued deterrence enemies armed with nuclear weapons. As Tom Nichols and I have written in the National Interest, “The major virtue of an ICBM force, then, is not what it can do after an attack, but what the enemy will have to take it into account before an attack, and consider the cost of starting an all-out nuclear exchange between the homelands.”

In other words, a major strategic virtue of the ICBM force is where they reside. In an environment after the Cold War, a “bolt out of the blue” scenario is unlikely. Even during the Cold War, it was the least likely attack once the both the United States and the Soviet Union fielded their respective triads. Today, a nuclear crisis will likely develop over time, allowing the United States time to disperse its nuclear bombers and submarines. This would leave the ICBMs as the most effective and vulnerable retaliatory force and this, paradoxically, is why they are valuable as a deterrent. An adversary would have to strike the heartland, in an effort to take out our entire ICBM force, resulting in an immense retaliation from the remaining legs of the American strategic triad.

In short, we are undervaluing ICBMs if all we intend is to “make it harder for an adversary to launch a major nuclear strike against the United States.” Rather, an adversary should view our ICBM force as the ultimate backstop to the ultimate act of violence. Because of their responsiveness and location, ICBMs based on land reinforce the message that in any first strike plan, the adversary has nothing to gain and everything to lose.

Currently, the ICBM force is facing some significant issues. Modernization efforts have now reached their limit for the Minuteman III, a system that entered service in the early 1970s with a life expectancy of about 10 years. With nearly 50 years of continuous service, the system has reached the point where modernization efforts can only do so much. Numerous key component parts of the Minuteman III are aging out and, in some cases, it is not technically or financially feasible to replace them. The existing plan to replace the Minuteman III is focused on the development of a missile that is sustainable and adaptable to several emerging technologies.

Replacing the Minuteman III will be expensive, but utilizing new digital and modular technologies will certainly help. Moreover, a “one for one” replacement may not be required. It may be possible, and some would argue sensible, to reduce the current fleet of 400 missiles to a smaller number of more sustainable and adaptable ICBMs for cost savings, as long as they are still dispersed throughout United States territory.

ICBMs are a strong nuclear deterrent, perhaps the strongest, for many reasons. American adversaries must face intensely complicated targeting requirements in a first strike or face an armada of retaliatory warheads. However, the number of ICBMs and their responsiveness do not fully define their total strategic value. As long as nuclear armed countries rely on nuclear forces to guarantee their security, fixed sites on sovereign United States soil should never be completely eliminated. A “monad” consisting of nuclear submarines simply will not do. It might even tempt future opponents into reckless calculations that we, and they, will regret.

Dana Struckman is a retired Air Force colonel and an associate professor of national security affairs at the Naval War College. He was a missile launch officer on active duty and commanded a United States missile squadron at Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota. The views expressed here are solely those of the author and not of the Naval War College, the Department of the Navy, the Department of Defense, or the United States government.