During the Reagan presidency in the 1980’s, our military looked into alternative basing options for our nuclear missiles to prevent the theoretical possibility of their being targeted and destroyed by the Soviet Union. After exploring over 30 basing options and hearing loud objections from some of the President’s most enthusiastic supporters in Nevada and Utah to spreading missiles across theirs states, the Pentagon decided that plunking missiles in fixed silos was perfectly safe.
Instead, our national security leaders decided that a combination of nuclear weapons on submarines and on bombers made mobile nuclear weapons on land unnecessary for maintaining a secure nuclear deterrent.
But sometimes in the Pentagon, you can’t keep a bad idea down, even though alternative options were discarded as too expensive and unwieldy.
According to Lt. Gen. James Kowalski, the U.S. Strategic Command Deputy Commander, the US should further pursue a “hybrid” and “flexible” future for our ground-based nuclear deterrent. The reasoning: make it harder for enemies to destroy our land-based missiles.
A recent report by RAND Corp has explored these issues and found mobile basing wanting.
This report on the future of the US’s Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs), which was sponsored by the Air Force, undermines the validity of some of the justifications for alternative basing options.
In terms of survivability, the only country capable of threatening the US’s ICBM deterrence is Russia. This threat was always unlikely at the height of the Cold War; a huge nuclear strike targeting many hundreds of ICBM’s would not only leave untouched bombers in the air and submarines but would cause a nuclear holocaust threatening all life on this planet.
The RAND report further suggests that a combination of arms control reductions and de-escalation policies since the Cold War have made an all-out nuclear attack even more strategically ineffective and statistically improbable.
Oh, and by the way, those nuclear subs and nuclear bombers can continue to provide flexible strike capabilities; a mobile land-based system would be added cost with no added value.
And the increased costs would be considerable. While no concrete plans for updating and modernizing the ICBMs have been released, RAND estimates costs over the next 39 years could reach $199 billion for a rail-based system and $219 billion for a road-based system. These far exceed the more pragmatic “indefinite, incremental modernization plan” which would cost $60-$90 billion to maintain and update our current missiles and silos over that same period. Clearly these would be hefty additions to an already inflated nuclear budget; one that many military minds agree is too large and too expensive.
While deliberation and study are important, the US Air Force should not return to a policy option previously and appropriately rejected.