WASHINGTON – For 50 years the Minuteman missile has been armed and ready, day and night, for nuclear war on a moment's notice. It has never been launched into combat from its underground silo, but this year it became the prime target in a wider political battle over the condition and cost of the nation's nuclear arsenal.
Minuteman was not intended to last half a century, so it's overdue to be replaced or refurbished. Some see this as a moment to push for scrapping it altogether, abandoning one leg of the traditional nuclear “triad” – weapons that can be launched from land, sea and air. Most in Congress favor keeping the land-based leg by replacing Minuteman with a new missile; President Joe Biden's position is not yet clear.
The outcome of the fight likely will steer nuclear policy and strategy for decades to come. It could influence how U.S. allies in Europe and Asia view the reliability of America's nuclear “umbrella” – the security net that has allowed most of them to forgo developing nuclear weapons of their own. Some argue that it could make the difference between war and peace in an era of rising Chinese military power.
Navy Adm. Charles Richard, who as head of U.S. Strategic Command is in charge of nuclear warfighting plans, says Minuteman is so old that Air Force technicians are coping with severely limited spares for components such as missile launch switches.
“I'm afraid there's a point where they won't be able to pull the rabbit out of the hat and the system won't work,” he told a House hearing April 21. Richard said it's safe and dependable for now but with “no more margin” for delay in replacing it.
Stephen Schwartz, a nonresident senior fellow at the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, says Richard's statements are reminiscent of alarming claims made during the Cold War about needing new weapons.
“Congress should critically examine the historical record and apply some healthy skepticism to such testimony,” he said.
Richard applauds a bipartisan push in Congress to preserve and modernize the entire nuclear arsenal at a cost, depending on how you define it, of more than $1 trillion. Opponents include a former defense secretary, William Perry, who has become an outspoken critic of Minuteman. The Pentagon's current leader, Lloyd Austin, has been publicly noncommittal on Minuteman but favors preserving the nuclear triad.
On one side is the view that ICBMs are indispensable to the strategy for deterring any adversary from attempting a nuclear attack upon the United States or its allies. A key piece of the argument is that an attacker would need to expend so many weapons destroying the 400 underground silos in five Great Plains states that he would see little chance of winning.
The opposing view is that ICBMs are overkill, given the large amount of firepower in the more elusive sea- and air-based segments, and that ICBMs make nuclear conflict more likely because an American president might feel compelled to launch one upon a warning of attack that turned out to be a false alarm. Once it's launched, an ICBM cannot be recalled.