Updating America’s Land-Based Ballistic Missile ‘Nuclear Sponge’ Is A $100B+ Waste

It’s time to cut a leg off America’s Cold War vintage nuclear triad and dramatically strengthen the far more relevant two that remain.

byTyler Rogoway|
U.S. Homeland photo


We hear a lot about "tough decisions" from Pentagon officials when it comes to procurement, even in a time of a significant defense spending boom, to the point that many of those statements seem eye-roll worthy and completely out of touch with just how much the U.S. spends on its massive national security apparatus. One of the biggest ticket initiatives currently on the Pentagon's books is the revitalization of America's nuclear deterrent, and for good reason. Selective modernization is needed, but instead of finding an efficient strategic balance that better suits the age in which we live, the Pentagon has gone with a 'kitchen sink approach,' which is wasteful, and above all else, a massive handout to defense contractors.  

Spurred by a Nuclear Posture Review that cut nothing and recommended adding more, the DoD had predicted spending $325B on nuclear modernization just through 2026. Now that figure looks like it has the potential to climb dramatically with a number of related programs at risk of ballooning in cost and other programs likely to be added in the not so distant future. 

The reality is that procuring this arsenal is just the cover charge. Maintaining all its different elements for decades to come will put extreme strain on the Pentagon's budget. With skyrocketing national deficits and the possibility of an economic downturn around the corner, none of this is sustainable. Something has to give. And that something should be the Air Force's ground-based intercontinental ballistic missile arsenal. 

Replacing America's 678 Minuteman III ICBMs—400 of which are operationally deployed at any given time—with a new missile is slated to cost roughly $100B, and that is with reusing and upgrading the existing Minuteman III infrastructure, such as their silos that pockmark the central United States. Now that price looks like it will be rising further, but according to General Timothy Ray there is nothing to worry about because competition will bring the price back down and the more reliable and less maintenance intensive missiles will save money down the line—at least that's the theory, one that sounds concerningly familiar. Defense News quoted Ray as stating:  

“Our estimates are in the billions of savings over the lifespan of the weapon, based on the insights... Between the acquisition and the deal that we have from a competitive environment, from our ability to drive sustainment, the value proposition that I'm looking at is a two-thirds reduction in the number of times we have to go and open the site. There's a two-thirds reduction in the number of times we have to go and put convoys on the road.”

Regardless, we are talking about an absolutely massive sum of money here that will lock America into maintaining its ground-based ICBM force for many decades to come. And maintaining it comes at an even higher cost, regardless of what efficiencies may or may not pan out via an updated missile system. 

To put it into perspective, the estimate for the entire B-21 Raider Stealth Bomber program or the Columbia class nuclear ballistic missile submarine program—including deep investments in research and development in both cases—cost roughly similar sums of money.

W78 warhead used on the Minuteman III., USAF

A strong nuclear deterrent is absolutely necessary. It is the linchpin that has kept mankind from ending the world for the better part of a century even though two hostile countries have had the ability to do so in a matter of minutes. But there is deterrence and then there is an archaic and downright wasteful strategy that may cause more harm than good.  

400 Minuteman III ICBMs are scattered in fixed silos across Montana, Nebraska, Colorado, Wyoming, and North Dakota. Their job isn't necessarily to be launched during a nuclear attack, it is to suck up enemy warheads that could potentially be used on other targets and require the enemy—Russia—to invest heavily into the ability to neuter America's ICBM force. In fact, because of the hardened bunkers they are deployed in, multiple enemy warheads would be dedicated to each silo to ensure their destruction. Hence the ICBM force's nickname—America's "nuclear sponge."

In order to serve this purpose, a number of ICBMs must be ready to be launched at all times, or they wouldn't require the attention from the enemy needed to make a strategic impact. Given their fixed positions, they are not survivable in a peer-state nuclear exchange. Once again, that's their purpose. To soak up thermonuclear warheads en masse. In fact, even though they could potentially be launched before an incoming attack arrived, doing so is not set in stone. If it were, the enemy wouldn't target them in their opening barrage. 

Does this sound like madness? Because it is.

Minuteman III in its silo., USAF

This strategy seems suicidal in that it means that the enemy is going to unleash hundreds upon hundreds of thermonuclear warheads on the central U.S., causing absolute devastation and extreme radiological fallout that will sweep across the country industrial belt and bread basket. In fact, the ICBM force's very existence, and the threat they pose, invites a massive attack on the continental United States during a nuclear exchange, one that would devastate the country and would cause unthinkable environmental impacts across the globe. 

With this in mind, the idea of detouring warheads away from some population centers is laughable. There are more left for those targets and the country, and even the entire globe, would struggle to survive after such a devastating nuclear onslaught.

The notion that the fixed-base ICBM force imposes large costs on the enemy because they would have to destroy each site is also dubious, as well, as it just spurs the enemy into maintaining a larger nuclear arsenal. And yes, this costs money, but so does having to invest in countering a larger nuclear bomber force equipped with advanced long-range cruise missiles and especially an expanded ballistic missile submarine fleet. Also, attempting to do so doesn't require the fielding of more strategic nuclear weapons that are intended to pound a massive portion of America into radioactive oblivion. 

Simply put, the ICBM force's deterrent value is highly questionable at best. 

In fact, today Minuteman III missiles on alert aren't even targeted at Russia or any foe for that matter. Instead, they sit at the ready under a concept called 'open ocean targeting' in which they are aimed at the middle of the ocean out of fear of an accidental launch that could start a nuclear war. Still, this doesn't mean even a launch alone couldn't start a nuclear exchange, especially during a time of heightened tensions. 

Inside the launch control bunker of a Minuteman III missile. , USAF

It's unclear how long the retargeting process takes place, but this policy is another indication that these weapons primarily exist to be destroyed. America's submarine-launched ballistic missiles also sit programmed to hit the ocean, but since they are deployed on a survivable platform, this policy has little impact on their ability to carry out successful nuclear strikes. 

Even with 'de-targeting' measures in place, considering the National Command Authority could have very little time to actually issue a mass ICBM launch, the force also invites the risk of making a world-ending mistake. And it's not like the U.S. hasn't come close to barraging Russia with nuclear warheads based on things like technical glitches before, and today we live in an era where cyber warfare is a stark reality. 

Tom Collina, who also proposed eliminating the ground-based leg of nuclear triad in a piece for Defense One, wrote the following:

The United States can safely phase out the existing ICBMs without replacing them. This would save a boatload of money and take the missile states out of the crosshairs. And, as former Defense Secretary Bill Perry has written, it would also address the concern that ICBMs “could trigger an accidental nuclear war.”

Last year, before he became defense secretary, Mattis asked if it was time to remove the land-based missiles, as “This would reduce the false alarm danger.” 

What are Perry and Mattis talking about? Nothing less than a nuclear nightmare, in which atomic weapons are used by mistake.

U.S. land-based missiles are highly vulnerable. They sit out in the open and everyone, including Vladimir Putin, knows exactly where they are. So if Russia attacks them (no other country could), President Trump has only two options: launch the missiles before the attack arrives (and destroy Russia), or wait and let them be destroyed in the ground. Either way, Colorado, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, and Wyoming are toast.

But here is the rub: President Trump would have about 10 minutes to make this fate-of-the-world decision. And the only sane decision is not to launch. Why? Because there is no way to know for sure (and you want to be sure) that the feared Russian attack is real.

There have been at least three false alarms in the United States that could have led to a mistaken nuclear war. Forty years ago, Perry himself was awakened in the middle of the night and told that Pentagon computers were showing 200 ICBMs on their way from the Soviet Union. Luckily, it was not the end of the world, but just a computer glitch.

How would President Trump respond if he were told at 3 a.m. that hundreds of Russian nuclear missiles were landing in minutes? Would he have the temperament to realize that it could be a false alarm, or would he impulsively launch a counter attack? No one else has the authority to make this call, and once the missiles fly they cannot be called back.

It is shocking that senior officials in the nuclear weapons business do not take the risk of false alarms seriously. They reassure us that the chance of a false alarm is “at an all-time low” and that “the statistical probability that the United States would launch ICBMs as a result of a false alarm is close to zero.” Such language is dangerously irresponsible. One can imagine the same bromides being used before the Titanic sank or the Space Shuttle exploded.

The honest truth is that the probability is low but not zero. And the consequences would be astronomical. When it comes to nuclear weapons, it only takes one. Human errors and machine errors do occur. It is only a matter of time before the odds add up to a catastrophic failure. As Perry writes, “we do not have to take that terrible risk anymore. We should not rebuild our ICBM arsenal.”

The money saved by retiring the USAF's ICBM inventory could be invested in America's more survivable and far more flexible nuclear deterrent options, both of which also have conventional warfighting value. For instance, leveraging the huge investment being made in the Columbia class nuclear ballistic missile submarine program by buying more of the boats, it could make it less expensive for the Navy to procure a conventional cruise missile carrying and special operations derivative to replace the first four Ohio class SSBNs that were converted to SSGNs of a similar capability. This is something the Navy already wants to do, but with just 12 Columbia class boomers slated for procurement, a lack of economies of scale will make it harder to realize. 

Buying more Columbia class boats would also lower the unit price of for fleet overall, which will, in turn, allow for additional hulls to be procured, or money saved for other priorities—or even just saved outright.

Columbia Class SSBN configuration., GAO

Investing more heavily in America's survivable second-strike deterrent does make sense as it serves in an opposite role of the 'nuclear sponge,' at least to a certain degree. It ensures that any enemy that attacks the U.S. with nuclear weapons will be destroyed in kind, even if the vast majority of U.S. military and government cease to exist following the initial enemy barrage. In other words, the Navy's boomers serve as the core of America's nuclear deterrent and fortify the notion of mutually assured destruction.

The B-21 Raider next-generation stealth bomber is also a better investment than the ground-based ICBM force. Bombers offer by far the most flexible nuclear option for U.S. commanders during a crisis and their very presence—often referred to as signaling—can impact the enemy's decision cycle in positive ways. They can also be recalled and offer a scalable response, a strategy that has been elevated by Russia's own supposed willingness to employ tactical nuclear weapons during a crisis as part of a strategy called "escalate to de-escalate," which you can read more about here

Combined with the USAF's new stealthy Long-Range Stand-Off cruise missile, the B-21, with its high degree of stealth and survivability technologies, offers the ability to hold any enemy target on the globe at risk of standoff or direct nuclear or conventional attack. The B-21's ability to offer a highly robust conventional strike capability, as well as various other functions, also makes it a key component of America's strategy to confront threats like China in the years to come. So, investing in the B-21 program more heavily isn't just about shoveling tens of billions of dollars into a strategic capability alone that is meant not to be used, or worst case, to be obliterated via hundreds of nuclear warheads during a nuclear exchange. It is a true dual-role weapon system by design.


There are also other nuclear weapons programs that may need funding in the future, such as the return of ground-launched nuclear-tipped cruise missiles and even those launched from ships and submarines now that Intermediate-Range Nuclear Force Treaty has dematerialized. Getting the F-35 nuclear-capable is another increasingly pressing issue. Hypersonic weapons eventually moving into the nuclear domain is also a possibility. 

Spinning up these capabilities won't be a cheap affair. In addition, we could see an expansion of nuclear arsenals as a whole as other nuclear arms treaties may also dissolve in the not so distant future. So the idea that the current monetary estimate to revitalize America's nuclear arsenal is highly unlikely to stay put even beyond the prospect of cost overruns of existing programs. 

Members of Congress are also realizing that the Pentagon's eyes are bigger than their stomach when it comes to updating and expanding America's nuclear arsenal. National Defense writes:

“We need to modernize our nuclear force and our nuclear deterrent — that’s not debatable,” House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., said at a recent conference hosted by McAleese & Associates and Credit Suisse. “The question is how much do we spend?”

The Congressional Budget Office has estimated the total cost of the strategic arsenal will be $325 billion between 2019 and 2026, with the annual bill further increasing in subsequent years as the Pentagon fields next-generation systems.


“We can save money on the nuclear deterrent,” Smith said. “We can’t do everything we’re contemplating doing.”


James Acton, co-director of the nuclear policy program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, noted that the Defense Department is facing a “bow wave” of expenditures on strategic forces.

As concerns about the budget deficit grow in the coming years, “there are going to be real tradeoffs that are going to have to be made,” he said during a panel at the Heritage Foundation.

Submarines and stealth bombers are less vulnerable to enemy attack than ground-based missiles, and ICBMs are “virtually useless from a signaling perspective,” he said.

“Given the budgetary pressures … the tradeoff is most likely to be with the ICBM force,” Acton said. “Deciding to … make those tradeoffs now is almost certainly a lot more cost effective than being forced to make them 10 or 20 years from now” after large investments have already been made in the GBSD, he added. 

Some will balk at the idea of eliminating an arm of the nuclear triad—the cornerstone of America's Cold War nuclear strategy. That's understandable as the concept is deeply ingrained in America's geopolitical psyche and the defense industrial complex's very soul. There is so much money tied up in America's 'nuclear sponge' and the sprawling infrastructure that supports it that special interests—from local towns located near missile bases to prime defense contractors—won't let it go without a fight. The same can be said for the USAF. Losing their ICBMs would result in a massive mission loss and the loss of a ton of funding that goes with it. They may make some of it up in other areas, but not all, at least according to the concept laid about above.

Still, justifying the ground-based ICBM force seems nebulous at best and totally counter-intuitive at worst. Even Russia diversified its land-based ICBM force with road-mobile systems that are hard to target in real time and thus far more survivable than their silo-based counterparts. But once again, survivability isn't the nuclear sponge's main goal.

Minuteman III test launch. , USAF

The New START treaty is also an issue. As it sits now, the premier nuclear arms reduction agreement between the U.S. and Russia expires in 2021, but it can be renewed out to 2026. If it isn't and the increasingly estranged parties agree to new negotiations, giving up the ICBM force would be a huge negotiating chip to make Russia also give up its most menacing capabilities, some of which are exotic in nature and don't fall under existing treaty frameworks. 

Getting rid of the ICBM force under the current New START treaty would also free up more 'deployed warheads,' which the treaty puts hard limits on, for ballistic missile submarines and bombers, which would fit into the realignment strategy I laid out above.

It's unfortunate that at least a highly focused independent study of this possibility isn't being done as the Pentagon is about to begin pumping money into upgrades on its missile silos and their support elements in the near term in preparation for accommodating a whole new missile in the years to come. Doing that now just to drastically reduce the ICBM force when fiscal reality hits would be incredibly wasteful. 

But above all else, eliminating the ICBM force as a whole would provide a lot of funding for far more flexible and survivable strategic assets, as well as the command and control and support architecture that ensures they will work as intended if the most horrific command order of all command orders gets passed down. By investing more deeply into the other two legs of the triad, America's conventional capabilities will get a major boost, as well.

So, is buying roughly another eight Columbia class SSBNs—12 are currently planned—as well as another 60 B-21 bombers—80-100 are currently planned—and saving more in sustainment costs in the decades that follow, a better investment than keeping America's 'nuclear sponge' viable? 

I would argue yes. 

Contact the author: Tyler@thedrive.com