War Stories

The Missile Trap

Congress’s ICBM caucus is taking aim at the White House.

391774 02: A MX or "Peacekeeper" missile, left, and two versions of the Minuteman missile sit at the entrance of Warren Air Force base July 11, 2001 near Cheyenne, WY. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld announced plans to scrap all 50 of the nuclear-tipped missiles located on the base. (Photo by Michael Smith/Getty Images)
391774 02: A MX or “Peacekeeper” missile, left, and two versions of the Minuteman missile sit at the entrance of Warren Air Force base July 11, 2001 near Cheyenne, WY. Michael Smith/Getty Images

For the first time in two decades, the Pentagon is considering, and Congress is debating, whether to spend hundreds of billions of dollars on a new nuclear-armed missile.

The new weapon, called the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD), would replace America’s 400 Minuteman intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) at an estimated cost of $264 billion over the next few decades.

The debate is particularly fierce, and will become more so once the Biden administration releases its defense budget sometime next month, because one faction in this debate—with adherents in the Pentagon, Congress, and the White House—want not only to halt funding for the GBSD but to dismantle some or all of the 400 existing missiles.

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Last fall, the Trump administration gave Northrop Grumman a $13.3 billion sole-source contract to begin engineering and development on the new missile, in an attempt to lock in the project and make it harder for anyone to kill it outright. Northrop had lined up more than a dozen subcontractors—including fellow giants such as Lockheed Martin and General Dynamics, which are normally its competitors—in order to widen support for the project in Congress.

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Coordinating this support are the members of the “ICBM Coalition,” legislators who represent the states that house the ICBM bases (Montana, North Dakota, and Wyoming) and the Air Force’s Global Strike Command (Louisiana). Last summer, when Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) proposed shifting $1 billion of the GBSD’s seed money to help combat the COVID-19 pandemic, Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), a very vocal member of the coalition, accused him of shilling for China.

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This coalition is also aided by several hawkish legislators who view the nuclear Triad—the three “legs” of the U.S. arsenal that include land-based ICBMs, submarine-launched ballistic missiles, and long-range bomber aircraft—as tantamount to the Holy Trinity. Remove any one of those legs, they insist as a matter of dogma, and the entire edifice of nuclear deterrence will fall apart.

Last week, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) said he would vote down the nomination of Colin Kahl as undersecretary of defense for policy because Kahl would not kowtow unthinkingly to the GBSD. (Under questioning, Kahl, a former official in the Bush and Obama administrations, said that he supported modernization of the Triad but would have to examine classified material before taking a position on the GBSD. To Cotton, this was heresy.)

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The existence of the Triad is an accident of history. There were three branches of the U.S. military—Army, Navy, and Air Force—and so, there are three separate platforms for nuclear weapons: the Army built land-based missiles, the Navy built missiles for submarines, and the Air Force built bombs to drop from airplanes. (In the late 1950s, the Air Force beat the Army for the ICBM contract, so the Army built short-range missiles for deployment in Europe and Asia. When those missiles were deactivated toward the end of the Cold War, the Army got out of the nuclear business.)

As often happens with historical accidents, theories were crafted afterward to rationalize the way things turned out. It was noted that submarines could roam beneath the ocean’s surface for long stretches of time, undetectable and invulnerable; therefore, the subs ensured that, if the Soviets launched a nuclear attack on the U.S., the U.S. could fire back, thereby deterring the Soviets from attacking in the first place. Land-based ICBMs were more responsive to commands, and they were much more accurate than submarine-launched missiles, enabling the U.S. not only to smash Soviet cities, but to hit specific targets, such as enemy missile bases. Bombers could be recalled to their bases (unlike missiles, which, once fired, were irretrievable), reducing the chances of an accidental war and giving leaders time to de-escalate in a crisis.

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There was logic to this argument, for a while, but in the 1990s, the rationale for the land-based ICBM started to unravel. The Navy deployed a new submarine-launched missile, called the Trident II, which, unlike earlier models, was powerful and accurate enough to destroy pinpoint targets, such as the Soviet Union’s blast-hardened ICBM silos. Command-control systems also improved, so that the president could more reliably send launch orders to a submarine out at sea.

ICBMs were becoming not just superfluous but destabilizing. They were at once highly accurate and highly vulnerable—capable of destroying, but also of being destroyed by, Russian ICBMs. In short, their very existence increased the likelihood of a nuclear war. In an escalating crisis, one side would have an incentive to launch a first strike before the other side launched a first strike.

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There were fevered debates about all this in the 1980s and early ’90s, but as the Cold War wound down, so did the fear of nuclear war and the intrigue over abstract discussions of nuclear strategy. The U.S. and Russia did reduce their ICBMs through a series of arms-reduction treaties (the U.S. used to have 1,054 of them), but they didn’t dismantle those missiles entirely.

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Still, time, decay, and dwindling enthusiasm for the nuclear enterprise meant funding would be cut, possibly drastically, over time. So, when President Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signed the New START treaty in 2010, the ICBM Coalition took out the old playbook. They told Obama that they would not ratify the treaty—an act that required two-thirds of the Senate—unless Obama agreed to modernize all three legs of the Triad.

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Obama finessed the demand, pledging in a written statement to “modernize or replace” all three legs of the Triad. “Modernize” could mean any number of things: installing new software or better communications gear; it didn’t necessarily mean buying whole new systems.

But exploiting this concession, Senate Republicans started rolling out a list of new weapons—new ICBMs, new bombers, new submarines, new cruise missiles, and a few different models of new warheads—which they said would cost a total of $1.3 trillion over the next 30 years. When Trump took office, Pentagon officials misleadingly, but very cleverly, referred to this plan as “the Obama program of record.” Since no one under Trump would dare propose spending less than Obama on a defense program, this guaranteed that the largest nuclear building plan since the Reagan administration would proceed unimpeded.

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But the ICBM still needed a rationale, so a team inside U.S. Strategic Command came up with something called the “sponge” theory. Without any land-based ICBMs, this theory posited, the enemy could launch a highly effective nuclear first strike by destroying a mere six targets inside the United States—two submarine ports, a few bomber bases, and the “national command authority” (meaning Washington, D.C.). However, if we still had ICBMs, the enemy would have to hit them as well; hitting 400 ICBMs would require launching 800 warheads; by any standard, that would be a “major” attack, killing several million Americans; any American president would have to launch a retaliatory attack; therefore, the Russians wouldn’t dare launch a first strike.

There are at least three flaws to this argument. First, it is very strange. A few decades ago, the people who came up with the “sponge” theory were arguing that the Kremlin’s leaders would have little hesitation launching 2,000 warheads against 1,000 U.S. ICBMs; the core of our nuclear strategy assumed that they would. Now these people, or their intellectual heirs, are saying that firing fewer than half that many warheads would be too large and too destructive for the Russians to consider. The threat-scribes have altered their premises to fit the conclusion they want to reach.

Second, the six targets that the enemy, presumably the Russians, would have to hit, if we didn’t have ICBMs, are close to cities; Washington is a city; tens of millions of Americans would die in this “limited” nuclear strike. It is implausible that a Russian leader would take the chance that an American president would simply surrender without retaliating. And the American president could send the retaliatory order to the many submarines that would be out at sea (half of them are at sea at any one time, all the time), and to the several bombers that would have taken off from their bases in the early stages of a crisis.

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Finally, let’s say that there is something to the sponge theory—that we should present the Russians or Chinese or whomever with more than a half-dozen targets to hit if they were contemplating a first strike. Do we need to present them with 400 extra targets? Would 100 be enough? How about 50 or a dozen? The sponge theorists should be asked to make the case that fewer than 400 would be too few.

Nor does the sponge theory require those ICBMs—however many there are—to be new. Yes, some of the existing Minuteman missiles have been sitting in their silos since the 1970s. But they haven’t been doing much that causes wear and tear; they’ve undergone several “service-life extensions” over the decades—new warheads, software, avionics, guidance systems, command-control receivers, etc.—and there’s no reason they couldn’t undergo more. The 76 nuclear-armed B-52H bombers in the fleet have been around since the 1950s, and they’ve been flown and otherwise jostled a lot. They too have undergone a lot of service-life extensions, and they’re in fine shape.

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In other words, there is no good reason to buy the GBSD and several good reasons not to.

Usually, this wouldn’t matter. Congress tends to defer to military commanders on what weapons are “required,” especially when it comes to the nuclear Triad. Sen. Cotton said in another recent hearing, “It’s very expensive and hard to win an arms race, but it is much better to win an arms race than to lose a war.” OK, but Cotton and others who think like him should be asked how not building the GBSD heightens the risk of losing a war. They should also be asked to consider whether sparking a new arms race might heighten the risk of starting a war.

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It is quite possible that the likes of Cotton will find themselves on the losing side of the argument this year. First, the Biden administration may not ask for full funding of the GBSD. Biden himself has long been skeptical of the nuclear priesthood. His midlevel political appointees working on nuclear problems in the National Security Council and the Defense Department are skeptical as well. And his secretary of defense, retired Gen. Lloyd Austin, spent his career in a branch of the military—the Army—that hasn’t had any involvement with nuclear weapons for decades.

Finally, after just spending several trillion dollars to recover from the economic ravages of the pandemic, Congress might be less casual about spending trillions more on nuclear weapons, especially since other military ambitions—a larger navy, a stealthier air force, a more robust cybersecurity effort—might strike some, including inside the military, as more urgent.

Long ago, a Pentagon official told me, only half-jokingly, that, when contemplating the numbers involved in nuclear weapons and nuclear war, it’s best to “chop off the zeroes”—the nine zeroes denoting billions of dollars and the six zeroes marking millions of deaths. This may have been a sound option during the Cold War; it was too unsettling to stare straight into the abyss. But this past year we’ve been immersed in an abyss that’s disturbing enough, not least because it’s been real, and so it may be a fine time to ask how many nuclear weapons we really need—and to make those who say we need to build more explain very clearly just why.

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