War Stories

What’s Next for Our Brave Missileers?

Are there good “alternative uses” for ICBMs—or are the missile men just looking for something to do?

Up, up and away?

For a while, it looked as though the intercontinental ballistic missile—the 20th century’s most awesome emblem of bristle and power—was headed into history’s dustbin along with other Cold War relics and detritus. But this week, Gen. Lance Lord, commander of U.S. Air Force Space Command, told the National Defense University Foundation that, to the contrary, the ICBM still has a bright and potent future.

As Walter Pincus reports in today’s Washington Post, Gen. Lord is preparing “alternative uses” for the ICBMs—such as arming them with non-nuclear warheads that can attack underground bunkers or any other target with stunning swiftness.

“The demise of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War have actually increased the importance of our Minuteman III ICBM,” Gen. Lord declared. And R&D programs for new intercontinental missiles and payloads—with names like Prompt Global Strike, Common Aero Vehicle, Joint Warfighting Space and Operationally Responsive Space—are, as he put it, “up and running.”

What is going on here?

There are two ways to look at this development. First, from a conceptual standpoint, military strategists over the past two decades have written about extending the global reach of American armed power while reducing dependence on overseas bases. What could be a longer reach than firing weapons from U.S. territory with ballistic missiles that can reach their target—any target, anywhere—in a matter of minutes or, at most, an hour?

Second, from what some may deem a more cynical—or others a more pertinent—point of view, it may well be that the Air Force missile men are simply, desperately, looking for something to do.

America’s ICBM force was once a vast and mighty enterprise—1,000 missiles, armed with over 2,000 nuclear warheads, buried in blast-hardened silos, and surrounded by security complexes and launch-control centers spread across 40,000 square miles of U.S. territory. Now the force has dwindled to 500 missiles, the Minuteman IIIs, each with three warheads (but being converted to carry a single, more powerful warhead). The 50 MX/Peacekeeper missiles, which dominated the U.S. strategic buildup of the 1980s—each of them carried 10 warheads, which could each unleash enough explosive power, with enough accuracy, to destroy Soviet missile silos—have been deemed obsolete, without controversy; only seven remain, and they’ll be dismantled by September.

And yet, as Gen. Lord noted in his speech (for a transcript, click here), the Air Force employs “9,000 ICBM professionals”— 9,000!—to maintain a mere 500 missiles. He said, in a speech to the same organization last year, that these “dedicated ICBM professionals” (back then they numbered “over 10,000”) are “super-busy” till 2009. They’re replacing the Minuteman IIIs’ guidance electronics, re-pouring the solid propellant in the rockets’ first and second stages, re-manufacturing the third stages, and keeping all the hardware in such immaculate spit and polish that the missile units boast a 99.5 percent alert rate.

But, it’s all too clear, these officers are looking for something to do. Back in the 1950s, when the nuclear arsenal consisted of bombers—men flying airplanes and training to drop H-bombs over the targets, manually—Gen. Curtis LeMay, the founder and leader of the Strategic Air Command, didn’t much like the coming era of missiles. He worried that SAC would deteriorate from a fighting force into a mere maintenance crew—”the silent silo-sitters of the Sixties,” he woefully predicted.

Now the silo-sitters aren’t even perched on the edge of their seats. There’s not the slightest chance of a Russian first strike—the nightmare scenario of the Cold War. In his speech this week, Gen. Lord talked about the “warrior ethos” that’s vital to the Air Force missileers. He contended that the Minuteman III service-life extension program perpetuates this ethos. “There is no better skill to have as a Space Professional than a complete and comprehensive appreciation for nuclear operations. It teaches us all the meaning of ‘bomb on target.’ It gives us our ‘Warrior Ethos’ and it has been pivotal in transforming our command from a research and development background to an operational Major Command in our great Air Force.”

But come on. It’s obvious this general needs a mission. ICBMs clearly don’t fill one these days. So he’s developing a whole new kind of ICBM. He also—in both speeches—called for “a new generation of ‘wizards of Armageddon’ ” who can devise new ideas and strategies for the new missiles. (For an explanation of this phrase, click here.)

Which leads us back to the conceptual way of looking at this development. Is there anything to this notion? Is it an idea worth exploring? Whether it is or it isn’t, the Air Force wing of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is looking into it. That’s what the Common Aero Vehicle, which Gen. Lord mentioned, as well as another program called FALCON, is all about. (For more details, click here, here, and here.) The idea is to load a bunch of cluster bombs into a missile’s nose cone and fire the missile in the vague direction of the target; the CAV ejects, glides more accurately toward the target (guided by GPS satellites or other means), then releases the smart bombs when it comes near.

Congressional committees rejected CAV when the Air Force put the program in the budget last year. They wanted to know which missile would boost CAV into its orbit. They discouraged consideration of using the current ICBMs for the job, since the Russians and Chinese might get the wrong idea and react in a dangerous manner if their radars were to detect a few dozen Minuteman IIIs lifting off from their launch pads all of a sudden. So, the Air Force and DARPA have now also started a new rocket program, the Small Launch Vehicle.

But wait. During both wars against Iraq and the air war over Kosovo, B-52, B-1, or B-2 bombers took off in the morning from bases far away from the theater (in some cases from their home bases in the United States), dropped their bombs, then flew home in time for dinner. There’s also the possibility of launching such attacks from submarines, which can move close to shore—any shore, anywhere. Subs and bombers are platforms that certainly don’t require the sort of technical leaps involved in a brand-new, small, and cheap ICBM.

There’s a problem with these solutions. Bombers, when used in such capacity, are controlled by the combat commanders (for instance, if the war’s in the Persian Gulf, U.S. Central Command). Submarines are operated by the Navy. What’s left for the missileers?

There may be a geo-strategic aspect to the intercontinental nonconventional ballistic missile—a fulfillment of Fortress America unilateralism. John Pike, who runs the globalsecurity.org Web site, puts it this way: “After we’ve turned everybody against us, when we’re all alone and armed to the teeth—when even the British have kicked us off their bases—we can still reach out and crush someone.”

If that’s what’s going on, let’s have a clear debate about it. If it’s not, then we need to ask what is going on.

It’s reminiscent, in a way, of a scheme devised in the late 1950s. This was the era of the “missile gap” and fallout shelters—when the American people first became all too aware of their vulnerability to nuclear nightmare—and the military started publicizing the arms buildup’s wondrous consumer benefits. (This was around the same time that NASA boasted that the space program had produced Tang and Formica.) In 1959, the Postmaster General cooperated with the U.S. Navy in setting up a program called “Missile Mail.” The idea was to create near-instantaneous mail delivery by sending it via missile. On June 8, 1959, an actual shipment took place. The nose cone of a Regulus cruise missile was loaded with 3,000 pieces of mail. The missile was launched from a Barbero submarine stationed in the Atlantic Ocean and landed off the naval auxiliary air station—22 minutes later. The experiment was never repeated.

It’s too late to revive Missile Mail. Now, after all, we have the Internet. And so we have the non-nuclear ICBM.