Global Security Newswire’s all-world reporter Elaine Grossman has done some marvelous work over the past year on DoD’s plans to modernize and replace U.S. nuclear delivery systems. Her latest reporting documents how the administration and the Air Force have been unable to tell a consistent story about what they plan to spend on preparatory analysis for a possible replacement for the Minuteman III ICBM.
The hook here of course is that given the commitment the administration made to modernize and replace our delivery systems in the Section 1251 report last year in order to secure Republican support for the New START treaty, the failure to identify funds for a new ICBM could be viewed as evidence of backsliding on this commitment. Indeed, that’s how Sen. Lindsay Graham is viewing the situation.
Bureaucratic fumbling makes for interesting reading. But I think the spotlight should be less on whether a few million dollars may or may not be available in FY 2012 to study a new ICBM, and more on the necessity and feasibility of developing and deploying a new ICBM, to say nothing about replacements for the other two legs of the triad…
The U.S. currently deploys 450 ICBMs at three locations: F.E. Warren AFB in Wyoming, Minot AFB in North Dakota, and Malmstrom AFB in Montana. The 2010 Nuclear Posture Review concluded that the United States will “deMIRV” all deployed ICBMs, so that all missiles retain only one warhead. In order to meet the limits in the New START treaty, the U.S. plans to deploy up to 420 ICBMs by the end of the decade. It’s not clear at this point how the Air Force plans to implement this reduction.
The Minuteman III first entered service in the 1970s. In the mid-1990s, the Air Force began a multi-year life extension program to extend the service life of the missile through 2020. A few years ago the Air Force considered studying options for a follow-on to the Minuteman III but ultimately demurred in favor of sustaining the missile through 2030.
Among other things, the life extension program has replaced the missile’s flight computer and guidance control system, re-poured its solid-fuel rocket motors, and modified its reentry system to allow for the deployment of the W87 warhead. Thanks to these programs the Minuteman III is essentially a new missile.
From FY 2001-FY 2010, Congress appropriated $7.7 billion in constant FY 2010 dollars for procurement and research and development for the Minuteman III. The Air Force asked for $379.36 million for the missile in FY 2011 and $454.6 million in FY 2012.
Plans for a New ICBM
In a November 2010 update to the May 2010 Section 1251 report, the Obama administration informed Congress that “while a decision on an ICBM follow-on is not needed for several years, preparatory analysis is needed and is in fact now underway. This work will consider a range of deployment options, with the objective of defining a cost-effective approach for an ICBM follow-on that supports continued reductions in U.S. nuclear weapons while promoting stable deterrence.” The update also stated that an Analysis of Alternatives on a new ICBM would begin in 2012 and that the Air Force is funding a Capabilities-Based Assessment for a follow-on missile at $26 million per year.
Thanks to Elaine’s reporting, we know that the Analysis of Alternatives will not begin until 2013 and that the Air Force will spend roughly $1 million in FY 2011 on the Capabilities-Based Assessment (not $26 million) and can’t say how much it will spend in FY 2012. Despite delaying the start date for the Analysis of Alternatives, the Air Force still hopes to complete its analysis with recommendations for the President by 2014.
Questioning the Conventional Wisdom
According to the Nuclear Posture Review and the November update to the Section 1251 report, a decision on a new ICBM is not needed now. That should provide time for a robust debate both inside and outside of government about the necessity and feasibility of a new ICBM. Some questions we ought to be asking include:
- The Minuteman III is expected to go out of service in the late 2020s or early 2030s. No one can predict what the world will look like twenty years from now, but given that (1) changing geopolitical, economic, and technologic circumstances since the end of the Cold War have demanded significant reductions in the size of the U.S. and Russia nuclear arsenals and (2) New START will expire in 2021 (or 2026 if a five year extension is invoked), we should account for the fact that the process of mutual reductions are likely to continue. This raises the question of whether a U.S. force of say, 1,000 deployed warheads, would alter U.S. requirements in terms of delivery vehicles? Would it make sense to maintain all three legs of the triad at such levels?
- Under the New START treaty, the U.S. will be able to deploy 1,550 (New START accountable) warheads on 700 delivery vehicles. Each one of these warheads is orders of magnitude more powerful than the two bombs dropped on Japan at the end of World War II. According to the latest estimates, the U.S. plans to spend well over $200 billion over the next decade to refurbish our warheads and modernize and replace our delivery systems. If the SSBN(X) (Ohio-class replacement) program is completed as planned, by 2040 the U.S. could still be deploying nearly 800 warheads on just the sea-based leg of the triad. What threats require such a bloated stockpile and expensive modernization program? Could the U.S. guarantee its own security and that of its allies in a more fiscally sustainable manner with a smaller nuclear arsenal?
- As James Acton has argued, if civilian and military leaders do chose to move ahead with the development and deployment of a new ICBM, considerable thought should be given to a smaller, perhaps mobile, fleet and a missile that can only carry a single warhead. In light of the ongoing debate within Russia about whether to deploy a new heavily MIRV’ed ICBM to replace the SS-18, a single-warhead replacement for the Minuteman III might encourage Russia not build up its strategic forces, which would obviously benefit U.S. security.