The Minuteman III ICBM’s Future
(Source: Lexington Institute; issued April 27, 2015)
LGM-30 Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) form the land component of the nuclear triad that provides deterrence along with air and sea legs. The purpose of strategic deterrence is to prevent nuclear war by ensuring that costs and risks associated with an attack outweigh potential benefits. Nuclear deterrence is dependent on the perceptions and evaluations of potential aggressors, and if successful persuades possible adversaries that an advantage could never be gained by a first strike. Today’s increasingly complex world ensures that the nuclear triad will continue to play a critical role in the 21st century.

However, ICBMs, like the other elements of the strategic deterrent, are aging and are overdue for modernization.

The current ICBM force was deployed in the 1970s, which means it has been in service for over 50 years — much longer than anticipated. Last year, the Pentagon completed an analysis of alternatives (AOA) to replace current ICBMs with the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD). The AOA determined the best way forward is to develop a replacement missile that utilizes modernized silos to ensure viability of the land leg until 2075.

As a result, the service plans to sustain the current ICBM force until 2030 and field nearly brand new missiles in 2027. Whether the Pentagon will proceed with development is expected to be announced in the first quarter of 2016. Currently, the Office of the Secretary of Defense is vetting the results of the AOA.

The replacement missile will use existing MK12A and MK21 re-entry vehicle nosetips in the single- and multiple-re-entry configurations, but the remainder of the stack will be replaced. The new force will be made adaptable so that the Department of Defense (DoD) can consider other basing options or new concepts of operation in the future. The government is also exploring how to restore launch-control centers and facilities to like-new condition and enhance security features.

The Air Force plans to replace the command-and-control network (WSC2) of the ICBM force with a brand new system. Since the industrial base has moved on to more advanced technologies, the WSC2, with outdated computers and copper cables, has become difficult to sustain. Major General Garrett Harencak, Assistant Chief of Staff, Strategic Deterrence and Nuclear Integration, noted in his testimony to the Subcommittee on Strategic Forces that communication capabilities must be “secure, redundant, and highly survivable” to ensure continuous connectivity to the president and senior leaders in various types of environments.

Colonel Ryan Britton, director of the ICBM systems directorate, has confirmed that the organization has received more funds and additional manpower to sustain and manage modernization activities of the current ICBM force through 2030. The President’s FY16 budget also allocates funds for continued development and risk reduction for GBSD, updated versions of ICBM payload transporters, and the creation of a program office to manage the replacement of UH-1N Hueys (helicopters that support ICBM operations by flying security sorties around missile fields) because they do not meet DoD survivability, carrying capacity, endurance, or speed requirements.

Thus far, it seems that the Air Force is in a good place when it comes to modernizing the ICBM. It is critical for the Pentagon to make a decision to begin development as soon as possible, however, since there is only a three year window planned in which the GBSD will be deployed and the current ICBM force will expire. Former Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel stated in November, “A consistent lack of investment and support for nuclear forces over far too many years has left us with too little margin to cope with mounting stresses.”

Frank Kendall, Under Secretary, Defense, Acquisition, Technology and Logistics, pointed out a funding gap of about $10 to $12 billion in the early 2020s when several nuclear modernization programs are due for production. As soon as a final decision is made by the Pentagon to begin development of GBSD, the Air Force should secure funding for future sustainment since there is competition at a time when resources are spread thin even though the two legs of the triad the Air Force manages account for less than one percent of the total defense budget (the entire three legs of the strategic deterrent cost less than two percent).

Because of their on-alert status, ICBMs provide a unique level of responsiveness and stability in comparison to the other components of the triad, stated Major General Harencak. Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James publicly declared the nuclear enterprise a “national asset” as Russia and China are modernizing their ICBMs and ballistic submarines, North Korea has fielded an outdated ballistic missile submarine and even France outpaces U.S. nuclear modernization. America’s nuclear deterrent should not be left to decay. Congress needs to ensure the services have the funds required from this point forward to upgrade the strategic deterrent.


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