It's time to eliminate land-based nuclear missiles

It's time to eliminate land-based nuclear missiles

A new report from the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) makes the case for rethinking the development, deployment and policies on land-based Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs). Former Secretary of Defense William Perry has rightly called these systems “some of the most dangerous weapons in the world” because they could trigger an accidental nuclear war. The UCS report underscores the fact that ICBMs are both dangerous and unnecessary.

As report co-author David Wright notes, “there is no technological rationale for maintaining ICBMs.” Because they are vulnerable to attack, the president would have a matter of minutes to decide whether to launch them upon warning of a nuclear attack. Given the possibility of a false alarm, this could lead to the catastrophic outcome of starting a nuclear war by mistake, which would be an unprecedented disaster for humanity.

To the extent that the possession of nuclear weapons is justified to deter an attack against the United States , that function can be fulfilled by submarine-launched ballistic missiles, which, as the UCS report notes, are “virtually undetectable and therefore invulnerable” — and therefore not subject to the need to launch them on warning of a potential attack. This provides a crucial margin of safety against a mistaken nuclear launch.

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The best policy would be to eliminate ICBMs altogether. But this approach will no doubt generate fierce opposition from the ICBM lobby, which includes senators from states with ICBM bases, as well as contractors like Northrop Grumman, which stand to make billions of dollars from the development and production of a new land-based missile — dubbed the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD). This lobby has had considerable success in preventing changes in ICBM policy. Among other things, the contractors and their congressional allies have been instrumental in blocking efforts to even explore alternatives to current plans for the development and deployment of new ICBMs. It’s long past time to prevent special interest pleading from blocking policies that will make us safer from a nuclear war.

As with many other unnecessary weapons programs, a central argument for continuing to build and deploy ICBMs is that they create significant numbers of jobs. This is a dubious argument, for several reasons. First, special interest economic considerations should not be allowed to prevent measures that will make the country and the world a safer place. In addition, weapons spending is a poor jobs creator. Virtually any other use of the same funds will create more jobs than building and deploying the GBSD. For the same amount of spending, clean energy and infrastructure create 40 percent more jobs than spending on the military, and health care creates 100 percent more jobs. Spending on these activities would make us both more secure and more prosperous. 

As for the ICBM bases, replacing the jobs they create will be a challenge. But there is a significant history of localities generating viable economic alternatives to military bases, from industrial parks to regional airports to locations for educational institutions to much-needed housing. There are no guarantees, but advance planning and coordination at the local, state and national levels can improve the chances of successful conversion of these facilities to productive civilian uses.

Eliminating ICBMs will not happen overnight. But Rep. Ro KhannaRohit (Ro) KhannaSome in Congress want to keep sending our troops to Afghanistan House panel votes to limit Trump's Germany withdrawal It's time to eliminate land-based nuclear missiles MORE (D-Calif.) is taking the lead in an effort to slash ICBM spending, a commonsense initiative worthy of support. In the meantime, UCS has a number of recommendations for changes in ICBM policy. 

The UCS proposals include removing ICBMs from high alert, to eliminate the possibility of launching these missiles on false warning and starting a nuclear war by mistake. 

Ultimately, the only way to be safe from a nuclear war is to eliminate nuclear weapons altogether, as called for in the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. But in the meantime, the recommendations of the new UCS report are a long step in the right direction.

William D. Hartung is the director of the Arms and Security Program at the Center for International Policy, and a coauthor, with David Wright and Lisbeth Gronlund, of “Rethinking Land-Based Nuclear Missiles: Sensible Risk-Reduction Practices for US ICBMs.