In the wake of alarming reports that some Air Force nuclear-armed missile operators have been cheating on performance tests, using drugs, napping on duty, failing to follow safety rules, and more, the Pentagon announced Jan. 23 it is setting up an independent review of all U.S. nuclear forces, to be completed in 90 days.
Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel says he is “deeply concerned” about “the overall health, and the professionalism, and discipline of our strategic forces.”
But the scope of this review—limited to personnel issues—must be expanded. At its core, the problems facing the nuclear force have little to do with people and everything to do with the declining mission.
As Hagel well knows, nuclear deterrence is no longer a high priority mission for defending the United States. It is a backwater, a dead end assignment. As the Pentagon put it in 2010, “The massive nuclear arsenal we inherited from the Cold War…is poorly suited to address the challenges posed by suicidal terrorists and unfriendly regimes seeking nuclear weapons.”
Reflecting this reality, on Friday Hagel asked rhetorically about the missileers, “Do they get bored?” And he would know. Launch officers sit in underground rooms in remote parts of Montana, North Dakota and Wyoming, waiting for an order to unleash nuclear devastation within minutes. Fortunately, that order has never come, and probably never will.
An all-out nuclear attack from Russia is a distant prospect. So much so that over the last 20 years Moscow has sold the United States the uranium from 20,000 of its dismantled bombs, which we use to produce nuclear power. Russia does not seem worried that Washington might turn this material back into weapons.
The Pentagon’s upcoming review must address the fact that political attention and career opportunities have moved away from the nuclear enterprise to more pressing threats, like terrorism, proliferation and cyber attacks. Yet the Cold War weapons and troops remain.
The Pentagon review needs to address mission-related issues, such as:
- Should ICBMs be kept on high alert?
The United States currently operates 450 ICBMs, each armed with nuclear warheads that have an explosive yield of 300 kilotons or more, the equivalent of about 20 Hiroshima bombs. Officers are on alert 24-7, ready to launch their missiles at empty silos after Russia launches its own, but before they land on the United States. U.S. missileers would have just a few minutes to carry out their orders before Russian missiles began to explode.
This high alert posture is fraught with risks, including the possibility that the United States or Russia could launch missiles based on warning of an attack that could turn out to be false. Such false warnings have happened before. As a candidate, Barack Obama pledged that as president he would “work with Russia to take nuclear weapons off hair-trigger alert” because “this Cold War stance today is unnecessary and increases the risk of an accidental or unauthorized nuclear launch.” The Obama administration has so far not taken steps toward de-alerting.
Taking ICBMs off high alert would be one way of addressing the risk of accidental or inadvertent launch by either the United States or Russia. It could also relieve some of the stress of the ICBM launch officers if the timelines for possible action were extended to hours and days instead of minutes. Given the relative invulnerability of U.S. strategic submarines, the United States would retain the ability to retaliate to any nuclear attack even if there were no ICBMs.
- Should we invest in a new generation of ICBMs?
The Pentagon needs to resist the temptation to throw money at this problem. Keeping more ICBMs than we need or investing in a new generation of missiles will just make the problem bigger down the road. Instead, the review needs to consider slimming down the ICBM force to bring it into proportion with its declining mission. Forgoing a new ICBM could also save about $10 billion over the next decade, according to a Dec. 2013 report by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO).
- What about bombers and submarines?
In addition to ICBMs, the United States deploys nuclear weapons on long-range bombers and strategic submarines. Bombers were taken off alert by President George H.W. Bush in 1991 and are not armed with nuclear weapons and a day-to-day basis. Bombers also have conventional missions and thus are not as susceptible to nuclear-mission malaise.
However, strategic submarines, like ICBMs, have only one mission—delivering nuclear weapons. Given the fact that the United States deploys at least 30% more strategic nuclear warheads than the current U.S. nuclear weapons employment guidance requires, the Navy’s strategic submarine program can also be scaled back.
The Ohio-class replacement submarine program is the most expensive piece of the Pentagon’s proposed nuclear modernization plan ($100 billion for development and production) and, according to the Navy, would force the service to forgo 32 conventional ships it is planning to build, including attack submarines and destroyers. The current fleet of Ohio class submarines and the planned purchase of new replacement subs (SSBNX) can both be reduced, saving $15.7 billion over 10 years, according to a Nov. 2013 report by CBO.
Don’t Just Throw Money at the Problem
Some will undoubtedly say that the Pentagon should pump-up the mission and throw more money at the nuclear arsenal to improve “morale.” That misses the point. There are already too many weapons and people involved in the nuclear weapons business given its declining relevance to 21st century security threats. Nor can the United States afford to spend more money on low-priority missions.
Moreover, if the United States continues to maintain an oversized nuclear enterprise, so will Russia. This will perpetuate the risk of accidental nuclear launch and the possibility that Moscow could lose control of its nuclear weapons and materials. As bad as the situation appears to be with U.S. missile forces, things in Russia are likely worse.
For the long term, the only viable solution is to bring the size of the arsenal into proportion with its mission, which means a smaller force at a lower state of readiness. This will save money, and reduce the risk that nuclear weapons will threaten the United States.