In a recent essay, Rebeccah Heinrichs of the Hudson Institute outlines the traditional case for building a new Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM), known officially as the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD). In a number of critical respects, her arguments fall short of the mark.
The first and most obvious question is whether we need ICBMs in the first place. The answer is an emphatic no. Because of their extreme vulnerability to attack, ICBMs are kept on high alert status, leaving the president a matter of minutes to decide whether to launch them on warning of an impending attack. This increases the chances of launching a nuclear war by mistake due to false warning, a risk not worth taking given the deterrent capabilities of the other components of the U.S. nuclear arsenal.
As former Secretary of Defense William Perry and Tom Collina, the Director of Policy at the Ploughshares Fund, note in their new book, The Button: The New Nuclear Arms Race and Presidential Power from Truman to Trump, the greatest risk of nuclear conflict is not an intentional, “surprise attack,” but rather the danger of “blundering into a nuclear war” in response to a false alarm. And no matter what measures are taken to bolster U.S. early warning capabilities or create checks, systems fail and humans make mistakes. And just one mistake in detecting a nuclear attack could end civilization as we know it.
The reality is that ICBMs are not needed to deter Russia or any other nation from attacking the United States with nuclear weapons. Invulnerable nuclear-armed submarines and a force of bombers that can be put on alert but—crucially—recalled if needed are more than enough to dissuade any potential attacker. The common sense case for a dyad of submarine-launched ballistic missiles and a reserve bomber force is made in detail in the organization Global Zero’s alternative nuclear posture review, which would shift U.S. nuclear strategy from one that engages in planning for elaborate and dangerous nuclear warfighting to one that establishes the nuclear arsenal as a second-strike force meant to deter nuclear attacks against the U.S. and its allies—a “deterrence-only” strategy.
ICBM boosters argue that absent ICBMs, U.S. nuclear forces would be more vulnerable to attack. But as the Trump administration’s own 2018 Nuclear Posture Review noted about nuclear-armed submarines (SSBNs), “when on patrol, SSBNs are, at present, virtually undetectable, and there are no known, near-term credible threats to the survivability of the SSBN force.” And given that eight to ten nuclear-armed submarines are at sea at any one time and nuclear bombers can be put on alert during a crisis and deployed to the skies on warning of an attack, there would be no realistic risk of a surprise strike that would disable America’s nuclear deterrent.
It’s important to remember that the creation of the nuclear triad of sea-, land- and air-launched nuclear weapons had more to do with interservice rivalry and the fight for shares of the budgetary pie than it did with a carefully crafted nuclear strategy. As Perry and Collina point out in their book, “the triad emerged over time mainly as the result of interservice rivalry between the Air Force and the Navy in the 1950s and 1960s. As nuclear weapons became a central arena of Cold War competition, defense spending began to flow, and no branch of the military wanted to be left out.” Add to that the intense lobbying activities of the Senate ICBM Coalition—composed of senators from states that host ICBM bases or maintenance activities—and contractors like Northrop Grumman that will profit from the more than $110 billion that is slated to be spent on the procurement and development of a new ICBM, and the power of the non-strategic factors nourishing the ICBM force becomes apparent.
Overcoming the power of the ICBM lobby is no small challenge. Fortunately, there are steps that can be taken now to reduce the risk of accidental nuclear war. As the Union of Concerned Scientists argues in its June 2020 report, “Rethinking ICBMs,” (of which I am a co-author) taking ICBMs off of high alert and eliminating launch on warning could considerably reduce the chances of a mistaken launch. Doing so while forgoing the development of a new ICBM would be a welcome first step towards the larger goal of eliminating ICBMs altogether. Getting rid of ICBMs would reduce the risk of nuclear war while saving billions of dollars that could be applied to other urgent security challenges.
William D. Hartung is the director of the Arms and Security Program at the Center for International Policy.