Setting a Course Away from the Intercontinental Ballistic Missile

February 16, 2021
3379236 (1) (1)

As the new administration reassesses U.S. nuclear policy, it will be forced to make decisions about the future of the country’s ground-based, nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) arsenal. Many advocates of maintaining the nuclear status quo have argued that it is essential to completely replace America’s aging Minuteman ICBMs with a new set of missiles, commonly referred to as the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent. And yet, to justify this approach, advocates have falsely presented the decision as a binary choice. They claim the United States must either fully replace its ICBMs or jettison them entirely. There is, however, an alternative approach: Extend the lifespan of the Minuteman ICBMs and use arms control to reduce the deterrence requirements that ostensibly justify them.

We argue that extending the lifespan of the currently deployed Minuteman missiles is preferable to replacing them with a new arsenal of ICBMs. Silo-based ICBMs are ultimately ill-suited to counter the emergence of regional nuclear — and especially non-nuclear — threats to U.S. national security. Doubling down on ICBMs would in fact create additional risks to U.S. security. Rather than committing to ICBMs for the next five decades or more, the United States should begin to move its nuclear force structure away from silo ICBMs and look to reduce the comparable elements of Russia’s nuclear forces in tandem through arms control.



Adding to the Minuteman’s current life span is technically feasible, and would be a reasonable political compromise between Democrats and Republicans as both parties seek to support U.S. nuclear modernization and additional arms limitations on Russia (and China). Finally, U.S. negotiators seeking to shape the development of Russia’s strategic forces by limiting the deployment of large, multi-warhead silo ICBMs will be better served by trading away currently deployed Minutemen missiles instead of waiting for new missiles to be deployed in ten years.

Don’t Double Down on the Past

The first question is whether ICBMs are still the best weapons to address the strategic challenges America faces today. There is little reason to think they are.

When the United States and Soviet Union began to deploy ICBMs in the 1960s, the deterrence rationale was clear. Because the missiles, when on alert, could launch within minutes of the president’s authorization, they ensured that a Soviet surprise attack to wipe out America’s leadership and nuclear arsenal would fail. Today, the threat of a massive “bolt-out-of-the-blue” attack is extremely low, and Russia is the only country that could conceivably attempt one.

Instead, the central challenge for U.S. nuclear policy today is managing escalation risks arising from limited conflicts with nuclear-armed adversaries — not just Russia, but also China or North Korea. Such conflicts could stem from crises in Eastern Europe, the East or South China Sea, or the Korean Peninsula. The early phases of such conflicts would likely involve a mix of information warfare, gray zone operations, and conventional war. Nuclear weapons are unsuitable to deter or defeat these activities, because the stakes are not high enough to warrant running the risk of nuclear retaliation. ICBMs, with high-yield warheads, are especially unsuitable for deterring low-intensity aggression.

What’s more, ICBMs are still unsuitable to deter the risk of massive escalation which might arise from these regional conflicts. U.S. bomber and submarine-based weapons far overmatch the nuclear forces of China and North Korea. Moreover, to reach Chinese and North Korean targets, U.S. ICBMs would have to pass over Russian territory, potentially provoking a political crisis or even Russian nuclear launch in response. This effectively rules out ICBMs in attacks against China or North Korea. Deterring Russia from a massive first strike remains the only conceivable reason to maintain ICBMs, but is a new ICBM necessary to deter Russian nuclear attacks against the United States or its allies?

A new, silo ICBM provides no unique offensive capability, and it invites risk. It is also inflexible compared to bombers and ballistic missile submarines. Today’s submarine-launched ballistic missiles, the life-extended Trident D5s, are more accurate than the Minuteman III, with warheads capable of taking out the hardest targets. Since they can be fired from closer to adversaries’ territories and from variable locations, these sea-based systems would be more likely to succeed in counterforce attacks. Bombers have other advantages as well. In addition to carrying out conventional missions, they can be used as a form of visible signaling, be forward deployed and even be recalled before they have launched their weapons. 

Faced with these arguments, proponents of the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent often claim the ICBM leg of the nuclear triad is a hedge against an uncertain future — where nuclear-armed states may grow in relative military power and new technologies may make submarines and bombers more vulnerable. Of course, it is prudent for the United States to hedge against these situations. Modernizing the air and sea legs of the U.S. strategic triad is critical to meeting these threats, as are nuclear risk reduction efforts. But given the uncertainty of these scenarios, in the unlikely and far-off case America did face multiple adversaries striving for nuclear parity, it would still be better served by constructing a force purpose-built for these circumstances.

Moreover, relying on ICBMs can carry additional risks. The early warning systems and command, control, and communications assets that make a “launch under attack” posture viable are increasingly entangled with conventional military assets and have become more vulnerable to conventional and cyber attack. If Russia or China were to attack some aspect of these systems, for example military communications satellites, U.S. leaders could easily interpret this as an attempt to disable U.S. defenses in order to launch a nuclear attack without fear of reprisal. The resulting heightened risk of inadvertent escalation could lead to a massive, escalatory launch of U.S. ICBMs, inviting an equally destructive retaliation. U.S. attacks against Russian command-and-control could produce the same result, since Russia maintains a similar alert posture for its ICBMs. 

Where We’re Going, We Don’t Need a Sponge

This leaves one final justification for building a new generation of ICBMs — that they are needed as a warhead “sponge.” The argument is that their existence would force Russia to use multiple nuclear weapons to destroy each U.S. ICBM in an attack. To destroy 450 ICBM silos, in other words, Russia would require at least 900 warheads out of the approximately 1,600 it deploys on a day-to-day basis. Nuclear policy analyst Vince Manzo estimated in a recent report that Russia would need to expend even more, leaving the United States with a numerical advantage in surviving submarine- and bomber-delivered nuclear weapons after an exchange of Russian and American ICBMs.

There are three main problems with this argument.

First, if the Kremlin were willing to carry out a first strike against U.S. ICBMs, Russian leaders probably would not be deterred by an unfavorable balance in surviving nuclear weapons for a potential second nuclear exchange. Instead, they probably would assume that both sides would be launching everything they have at each other. Massive strikes by one country against the other’s homeland would only occur in a general nuclear war, and both militaries and societies would largely be destroyed. That’s why Russian leaders are unlikely to attempt a first strike against the United States in the first place, which is why the United States does not need ICBMs (given the other problems they pose).

Second, even without ICBMs to act as a sponge, the United States would still be left with more than enough surviving submarine and bomber-based weapons after a hypothetical Russian nuclear first strike. A nuclear exchange is much more likely to occur as the result of a growing crisis rather than simply out of the blue. Survivable bombers and at-sea submarines will be “generated” — alert and available for nuclear operations — long before Russia would attempt a nuclear attack on the U.S. homeland (and the ICBMs based there). The hundreds of deployed nuclear weapons on air and sea delivery systems would be more than sufficient to destroy valuable targets in Russia and thereby deter such an initial attack.

Third, new technologies — increasingly accurate conventional weapons, new warhead delivery systems, and emerging cyber weapons — mean that Russia will need fewer nuclear warheads to target immobile U.S. ICBMs. If the U.S. sponge absorbs fewer warheads, its overall deterrence value is reduced. So even if the numerical disparity in surviving nuclear forces matters today, it is less likely to deter Russia as these technologies improve. Which is all to say, instead of worrying about the size of the U.S. sponge, logic suggests Washington simply use arms reduction talks to lessen the number of warheads that the sponge is expected to soak up.

For these reasons, the United States could meet its nuclear deterrence requirements without land-based missiles, and the resulting force structure would be more stabilizing. However, unilaterally eliminating the ground leg of the triad is not politically feasible. Entrenched domestic interests will mobilize in opposition to unilateral ICBM cuts. Unilateral elimination would also create confusion and fear among allies who, thanks to decades of U.S. diplomatic messaging, view the triad as essential for extended deterrence. Finally, unilateral ICBM elimination could throw away an opportunity to bargain for commensurate reductions from Russia and perhaps China. The question then is how to manage the U.S. ICBM force in such a way to reduce the associated risks.

A Responsible Way Ahead

Assuming the United States will retain some number and type of ICBMs for the foreseeable future, the smartest way forward would be to pause production of the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent and extend the lifespan of the Minuteman. This pause will buy time for arms control negotiations with Russia to further reduce deployed strategic nuclear warheads and delivery systems. Doing so will assure military officials, deterrence strategists, theorists and practitioners that the United States is not going “too fast” in force posture changes. It will avoid creating new disquiet among allies wary of other potential Biden administration nuclear policy moves. And it will motivate U.S. and Russian arms control delegations to have straightforward, substantive discussions surrounding deeper reductions in deployed strategic nuclear forces. At the same time, as part of a broader diplomatic conversation focused on enhancing bilateral strategic stability the two countries may pursue other negotiating priorities — increasing transparency, eventually limiting nonstrategic nuclear weapons, and addressing disagreements over space security and missile defense.

Is it technically feasible to extend the Minuteman’s lifespan? Proponents of Ground Based Strategic Deterrent assert it is not. The head of U.S. Strategic Command, Adm. Charles Richard, made this point succinctly:

You cannot life-extend Minuteman III. … It is getting past the point of [where] it’s not cost-effective to life-extend Minuteman III. You’re quickly getting to the point [where] you can’t do it at all.

There are, however, good reasons to doubt Adm. Richard’s claim. First, the objectivity of his assessment is questionable given an unusual, ongoing Air Force public relations campaign clearly aimed at limiting the flexibility of the new administration so as to ensure the development of a new ICBM. This media outreach is occurring well in advance of any broad-based, Department of Defense-led nuclear strategy review and before the appointment and confirmation of civilian defense advisors. Given Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin’s commitment to civilian oversight and “ensuring strategic and operational decisions are informed by policy,” civilian policymakers should carefully scrutinize the Air Force’s claims.

Adm. Richard’s assessment is also doubtful on technical merits. In 2014, the Air Force conducted a study — termed an “analysis of alternatives” — that considered various options for ICBM modernization. The conclusion was that a replacement was the most desirable. However, the study was premised on an Air Force requirement to maintain 400 deployed ICBMs through 2075. Both the number of missiles and the target date were essentially arbitrary. The United States reduced its deployed ICBM force to 400 to comply with the numerical ceiling set by the New START treaty. But given the possibility of substituting highly capable submarine- or bomber-launched weapons, the treaty does not set a floor to the size of the Minuteman force. Public explanations of the 2075 requirement, in turn, have been severely lacking. Air Force personnel only reiterate that the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent program office was asked to “build a system that’s going to last [until] 2075.”

As a result of the 400/2075 requirements, the Air Force did not examine whether a life extension could add “just” two or three decades to the Minuteman’s lifespan, especially if there were fewer total missiles. Since safely extending the Minuteman’s lifespan until 2075 may indeed be impossible, this meant the study concluded that developing the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent program was inevitable and it would be more cost-effective to start it sooner rather than later.

Experts suggest that a two- or three-decade Minuteman life extension is technically possible. In a 2019 War on the Rocks article, nuclear policy analysts Kingston Reif and Steve Fetter outlined how modest efforts, such as replacing solid rocket propellant and guidance systems and reducing destructive testing, would enable Washington to retain a substantial deployed ICBM force for years (see Figure 1). A new study without the 2075 requirement would demonstrate this. Unfortunately, the House of Representatives chose not to conduct such a study in 2019. Were the president to delay deploying the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent until 2050, then choose between extending the life of the Minuteman and shifting to a dyad in the intervening years, presumably Adm. Richard would say the life extension is indeed possible and preferable.

Figure 1

Figure 1: In scenario A, the Minuteman III ICBM will remain available in declining numbers after the projected 2029 deployment date for Ground Based Strategic Deterrent. In scenario B, a Minuteman life extension and lowering of the current test rate (from 4.5 missiles per year to 3 missiles per year) will maintain 400 Minuteman ICBMs until 2050. Source: Todd Harrison, “Options for the Ground Based Leg of the Nuclear Triad,” 2017 CSIS, pp. 18–19.

Importantly, extending the life of Minuteman would be even more feasible if the overall size of the ICBM force were reduced. The Biden administration should review whether the United States could meet its deterrence requirements with a lower number of deployed warheads. The Defense Department’s 2013 review of nuclear employment strategy suggests that it could. If a review now reaches a similar conclusion, it would be prudent to achieve these reductions in the Minuteman force. This would create a stockpile of additional nondeployed missile bodies to be used as spare components to refurbish ICBMs as they age. Even if the Department of Defense determined the current number of deployed warheads (1,457) is preferable, it could still reduce the Minuteman force and move some warheads to currently deployed Trident D5 submarine-launched ballistic missiles.

Previewing the Review

There is, in short, good reason for President Joe Biden to extend the life of the Minuteman with the goal of eventually decreasing our reliance on ICBMs through arms reduction agreements. Reif and Fetter’s analysis raises the question: How should Biden go about doing so? A well-structured Nuclear Policy Review could build support among the entire U.S. defense establishment — and relevant international and congressional stakeholders — to endorse this middle approach. As part of this review, President Biden should task the Defense and State Departments, along with National Nuclear Security Administration and Intelligence Community, to examine three major technical and policy issues.

First, the administration should order a review of Minuteman life extension options based on a wider range of parameters, considering the feasibility of deploying 100, 200, 300, or 400 ICBMs for a service life extending until 2040, 2075, or a date in between. The purpose of this study would be to examine the technical viability of Minuteman life extension in a range of force structures, while establishing the cost for refurbishment in scenarios where the eventual purchase of the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent was not assumed. Ideally, the Biden administration would seek input from an independent technical commission and make their work publicly available alongside the Defense Department’s own analysis.

Second, following this technical review, the administration should commission a study of alternative U.S. force structures and arms control policy similar to the 2009 Nuclear Posture Review. The Department of Defense and Strategic Command should examine the risks of moving U.S. strategic nuclear forces to a dyad composed only of bombers and ballistic missile submarines based on the current rate of Minuteman retirement (that is, all missiles retiring between 2030 and 2040). Another force structure worthy of examination would be a triad with fewer — 300, 200, or 100 — deployed ICBMs.

This review should also examine posture changes which could offset any potential drawbacks of reducing or eliminating the arsenal of deployed ICBMs from the perspective of strategic stability, nuclear security and safety, and the concerns of allies in Europe and Asia. Such changes could include: increasing procurement of ballistic missile submarines and/or bombers, revising the number of ballistic missile submarines on day-to-day patrol, augmenting warhead loadouts on deployed submarine launched ballistic missiles, increasing bomber readiness, and forward-deploying additional conventional or nuclear forces.

Third, the State Department should examine how various forms of arms control could make each force structure option more viable. Policymakers should consider whether reductions in Russia’s silo ICBM force could further enable U.S. movement toward a dyad, and what the trade-offs may be for U.S. negotiators. One priority for the United States should be to seek Russian reductions in silo-based, heavy ICBMs — such as the new Sarmat — and push for reducing the total number of Russia’s deployed warheads on existing multi-warhead ICBM systems. Arms control agreements that shape Russia’s nuclear posture toward more stabilizing weapons and policies will do a great deal to mitigate the risks of reducing America’s ICBM arsenal. As was the case in 2009, the administration should consider force structure changes and arms control policy in an integrated fashion.

Biden’s review of nuclear policy offers a rare opportunity to make long-overdue changes in America’s force structure and deterrence strategy. Crucially, this review should be structured in a nuanced, pragmatic way that avoids the false choice between completely replacing the Minutemen and eliminating the ground-leg of the triad immediately. This will better enable Washington to build on the recently extended New START treaty in order address the problem of aging U.S. ICBMs through a pause and trade strategy with Russia. The result will be a better, more flexible strategic deterrent.



Garrett Hinck is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Political Science at Columbia University, where he focuses on the international political economy of security, and technology and warfare. He was previously a junior fellow and research assistant with the Cyber Policy Initiative and Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. 

Pranay Vaddi is a fellow in the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He previously served at the U.S. Department of State, in the Bureau of Arms Control, Verification, and Compliance, where he worked on U.S.-Russia strategic arms control and deterrence issues. His current research is focused on developing future U.S. nuclear posture and arms control proposals, and Congress’ role in arms control policy.

This article summarizes a discussion found in a recent Carnegie Endowment report entitled “Proportionate Deterrence: A Model Nuclear Posture Review.” The full report can be found here.

Image: U.S. Air Force (Photo by Staff Sgt. Delia Marchick)

Wargaming Survey

We are running a survey on professional wargaming. If you have professional wargaming experience, please click here.