Upgrading The Triad: The Air Force Has Plans To Build 400 Modern ICBMs

December 12, 2019 Topic: Security Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: MilitaryNuclear WeaponsICBMsUS Air Force

Upgrading The Triad: The Air Force Has Plans To Build 400 Modern ICBMs

Meet the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent.

Key point: This billion-dollar program is long overdue.

The commander of U.S. Strategic Command, Air Force Gen. John E. Hyten, said the United States has about the right numbers of nuclear weapons, but they need to be modernized.

A Pentagon statement said the General asked reporters to imagine what the world was like in the six years preceding the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. “In those six years, the world in conflict killed somewhere between 60 million and 80 million people,” he said. “That’s about 33,000 people a day, a million people a month.”

The world has seen bloody conflicts -- Korea, Vietnam, Desert Storm, Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom were awful, but nowhere near the level of carnage the world had experienced, he said.

“The submarines are the most survivable element of it; the ICBMs are the most ready; the bombers are the most flexible,” he said. “When you put those pieces together, it gives our nation the ability to withstand any attack and respond if we are attacked, which means we won’t be attacked.”

The Future of ICBMs: 

The Air Force is now evaluating formal proposals from three vendors competiting to build hundreds of new, next-generation Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles designed to protect the US homeland well into the 2070s and beyond, service officials said.

Submissions from Northrop, Boeing and Lockheed are now being reviewed by Air Force weapons developers looking to modernize the US land-based nuclear missile arsenal and replace the 1970s-era Boeing-built Minuteman IIIs.

If one were to passively reflect upon the seemingly limitless explosive power to instantly destroy, vaporize or incinerate cities, countries and massive swaths of territory or people -- images of quiet, flowing green meadows, peaceful celebratory gatherings or melodious sounds of chirping birds might not immediately come to mind.

After all, lethal destructive weaponry does not, by any means, appear to be synonymous with peace, tranquility and collective happiness. However, it is precisely the prospect of massive violence which engenders the possibility of peace.  Nuclear weapons therefore, in some unambiguous sense, can be interpreted as being the antithesis of themselves; simply put – potential for mass violence creates peace – thus the conceptual thrust of nuclear deterrence.

It is within this conceptual framework, designed to save millions of lives, prevent major great-power war and ensure the safety of entire populations, that the U.S. Air Force is now vigorously pursuing a new arsenal of land-fired, Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles, or ICBMs

In an interview with Scout Warrior several months ago, Lt. Gen. Jack Weinstein, Deputy Chief of Staff for Strategic Deterrence and Nuclear Integration, cited famous nuclear strategist Bernard Brodie as a way to articulate the seismic shift in thinking and tactics made manifest by the emergence of nuclear weapons.

Considered to be among the key architects of strategic nuclear deterrence, and referred to by many as an “American Clausewitz,” Brodie expressed how the advent of the nuclear era changes the paradigm regarding the broadly configured role or purpose of weaponry in war.

Weinstein referred to Brodie’s famous quote from his 1940s work “The Absolute Weapon: Atomic Power and World Order.” --- "Thus far the chief purpose of our military establishment has been to win wars. From now on, its chief purpose must be to avert them. It can have almost no other useful purpose.”

The success of this strategy hinges upon the near certainty of total annihilation, should nuclear weapons be used. ICBMs are engineered to fly through space on a total flight of about 30 mins before detonating with enormous destructive power upon targets.

“If another nation believes they can have an advantage by using a nuclear weapon, that is really dangerous. What you want to do is have such a strong deterrent force that any desire to attack with nuclear weapons will easily be outweighed by the response they get from the other side. That's the value of what the deterrent force provides,” Weinstein said in an exclusive interview with Scout Warrior.

Although Weinstein did not take a position on the prior administration's considerations about having the U.S. adopt a No First Use, or NFU, nuclear weapons policy, Air Force Secretary Deborah James has expressed concern about the possiblity, in a news report published by Defense News. Limiting the U.S. scope of deterrence, many argue, might wrongly encourage potential adversaries to think they could succeed with a limited first nuclear strike of some kind.

Ground-Based Strategic Deterrence: 

It is within the context of these ideas, informing military decision-makers for decades now, that the Air Force is in the early stages of building, acquiring and deploying a higher-tech replacement for the existing arsenal of Minuteman III ICBMs.

Weinstein pointed out that, since the dawn of the nuclear age decades ago, there has not been a catastrophic major power war on the scale of WWI or WWII.

“When you look at the amount of people who died in WWI and then the number of people who died in WWII, you're talking about anywhere between 65 and 75 million people. WWI killed about 1.8 percent of the world's population. WWII killed 2.8 percent of the world's population. “What you want is to have a really strong capability so that they're used every day to prevent conflict. If you use one, then you've failed,” Weinstein said.

Weinstein added that, in total, as many as 45 million people died during WWII.

“All you need to do is look at pictures of what Dresden looked like and what Stalingrad looked like. These are major powers fighting major powers,” he said.

Nevertheless, despite clear evidence in favor of deploying nuclear weapons, modernizing the US arsenal has long been a cost concern and strategic liability for US strategic planners. In fact, Weinstein said there is concern that both Russian and Chinese nuclear arsenals are now more modern and advanced than existing U.S. Minuteman IIIs.

The new effort to build ICBMs, what the Air Force calls “Ground Based Strategic Deterrence,” aims to construct durable, high-tech nuclear-armed missiles able to serve until 2075.

The new weapons will be engineered with improved guidance technology, boosters, flight systems and command and control systems, compared to the existing Minuteman III missiles. The weapon will also have upgraded circuitry and be built with a mind to long-term maintenance and sustainability.

“Solid rocket fuel ages out after a period of time. You need to have an upgraded guidance package for sustainability and warfighting requirements. Looking at the current technology, it has moved faster than when these were first developed. Civilian industry has leapfrogged so we want the ability to use components that have already been developed,” Weinstein added.

Northrop Grumman and Boeing are among the major vendors planning to compete for the opportunity to build the new weapons; the Air Force released a formal Request For Proposal to industry at the end of last month.

Citing a Congressional Research Service report, a story in National Defense Magazine says the GBSD the program is expected to cost $62 billion from 2015 through fiscal year 2044.  That breaks down to about $14 billion for upgrades to command-and-control systems and launch centers, and $48.5 billion for new missiles, the report says.

In keeping with the NEW START Treaty, the US plans to field 400 new missiles designed to replace the aging 1960s-era Minuteman IIIs.

The new ICBMs will be deployed roughly within the same geographical expanse in which the current weapons are stationed. In total, dispersed areas across three different sites span 33,600 miles, including missiles in Cheyenne, Wyoming, Minot, North Dakota and Great Falls, Montana.

“If you look at the ICBM field, it's 33,600 square miles. That's how big it is. We sometimes say it's the size of the state of Georgia. It was developed that way for a specific reason. You didn't want them too close together. You wanted it so if the adversary were to attack at one time, you'd still have ones that would survive,” Weinstein explained.

This first appeared in Scout Warrior here.

This article first appeared several years ago.

Image: Reuters.