Is it Time for the US to Scrap our ICBM Arsenal?
By Wes O’Donnell. Veteran U.S. Army and U.S. Air Force. Managing Editor, InMilitary.com.
The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not in any way reflect the views of the American Public University System, its faculty or staff.
Imagine it is 1 a.m. and the President of the United States is sleeping soundly beside the First Lady in the residential wing of the White House.
Suddenly, an Air Force officer bursts into the room carrying the nuclear “football,” actually an aluminum case containing the launch codes for the U.S. nuclear weapons arsenal. The officer tells the President that U.S. satellites have detected a Russian launch of approximately 200 intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) at the United States; enough to incinerate every major U.S. city.
The Council on Foreign Relations has calculated that the President would have less than 10 minutes to decide whether to fire America’s land-based ICBMs at Russia in retaliation. According to Bruce Blair, a Princeton specialist on nuclear disarmament, “it is a case of use or lose them.”
The President must make a snap decision because the fixed, land-based U.S. missile silos are known to the Russians. This would most certainly make them a target in the first wave of a nuclear strike.
Not Enough Time to Make an Informed Decision
In 1985, a full nuclear alert shook the military when a U.S. Strategic Air Command (SAC) computer showed that the Soviet Union had launched 200 ICBMs at the United States. Amazingly, the officer-in-charge realized that there was a bug in the computer system. In reality, no missiles had been launched. His quick attention to detail likely saved the world.
A decade later, the president of the new Russian Federation, Boris Yeltsin, was mere seconds away from pressing the button to nuke the United States because Russia had detected a rocket launch from Norway. Yeltsin assumed it was an American nuclear missile. Later it was discovered to be a harmless scientific research rocket.
According to Reuters, “Once launched, America’s current generation of ICBM missiles, the Minuteman III, cannot be recalled: They have no communication equipment because the United States fears on-board gear would be vulnerable to electronic interference [or hacking] by an enemy.”
Thus, the limited time to make a decision, coupled with a perceived but false missile launch, makes the risk of accidental nuclear war as high today as any time during the Cold War. As one of the three legs of the U.S. nuclear “triad” (submarine-launched ballistic missiles, heavy bombers armed with hydrogen bombs and nuclear-warhead cruise missiles), ICBMs are the costliest to maintain and the most vulnerable to attack.
As a result of these two facts, a growing number of former defense officials and military scholars have been calling for the elimination of America’s ICBMs. Even former Secretary of State Colin Powell stated, “The one thing that I convinced myself after all these years of exposure to the use of nuclear weapons is that they were useless.”
But What about Our Deterrent?
Proponents of America’s enduring nuclear stockpile might claim that the United States would be less safe without land-based ICBMs. However, such claims may be challenged.
The U.S. Navy currently has 18 Ohio-class submarines deployed, 14 of which carry ballistic missiles. Each submarine is equipped with a maximum complement of 24 Trident II nuclear missiles. In addition, the U.S. Air Force operates a strategic nuclear bomber fleet consisting of 36 nuclear-armed B-52 Stratofortresses and 20 B-2 Spirits.
Also, the U.S. has a significant stockpile of tactical-use nuclear weapons that can be fitted to cruise missiles or carried by lighter, smaller fighter planes.
According to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 2,530 warheads are kept in reserve and 2,120 are actively deployed. America’s deterrent seems fine.
Real Risk of an Accidental War
If the United States must fight a war because of an existential threat, then I support our nation’s nuclear defense. After all, I trust in the professionalism of the warriors in STRATCOM. But it would be an unmitigated tragedy of the highest order to destroy civilization because of an accident or miscommunication.
On the morning of June 30, 1908, a massive explosion completely flattened 770 square miles of Siberian forest in a sparsely populated region of Eastern Russia. Now known as the Tunguska event, the explosion is thought to have been the result of the air burst of a meteor that collided with Earth’s atmosphere.
Imagine such a naturally occurring explosion occurring over a densely populated city in the United States. Such an event could be confused for a nuclear first strike. That would result in the President being handed the “nuclear football” with only minutes to make a decision that could mistakenly end the world.
Dismantling our ICBMs does not make the United States less safe, but more so. Without ICBMs, the U.S. would have more time for decision-makers to acquire more information and make data-driven decisions about humanity’s future.
In 2002, the United States and Russia agreed in the SORT treaty to reduce their deployed stockpiles to no more than 2,200 warheads each. In 2003, the U.S. rejected Russian proposals to further reduce both nations’ nuclear stockpiles to 1,500 apiece.
As a former professional soldier, I can state that America’s warfighters have both a distaste for and a fascination with nuclear weapons. The sheer destructive power triggers an awe that many soldiers reserve for profound life-altering experiences. On the other hand, something that kills so completely and indiscriminately should be loathed by all U.S. warfighters who, by and large, go out of their way to avoid civilian casualties.
We may be going in the wrong direction. Is it time for the United States to lead in the reduction of nuclear weapons, specifically our vulnerable and antiquated land-based ICBMs? Sound off below.