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The Challenge of Eliminating Land-Based ICBMs

By Taylor Marvin

Soviet R-36 nuclear missile launch. The R-36 could carry over 10 nuclear warheads, giving each missile the potential to kill millions of people.

Soviet R-36 nuclear missile launch. The R-36 could carry over 10 nuclear warheads, giving each missile the potential to kill millions of people.

At Slate Fred Kaplan critiques President Obama’s new defense budget, specifically the funding of new nuclear missiles:

“Is anybody thinking about the idea of phasing out the ICBMs? These are the weapons that, over the decades, have spurred first-strike temptations to begin with. They are at once the most accurate and the most vulnerable nuclear weapons. That is, they are capable of destroying, and being destroyed by, the other side’s ICBMs. In other words, their very existence creates temptations of pre-emptive strike in the event of a crisis. They are the weapons, in fact, that generated the nuclear arms race of the 1960s to 1980s. Now that the Cold War is kaput and the notion of first-strike scenarios more improbable than ever, let’s get rid of them—rather than plan to build more of them—while the climate is clear.”

This is a good idea. Land-based ICBMs are extremely destabilizing- unlike ballistic missiles launched from submarines they are accurate enough to target an enemy’s arsenal, making then the only weapon system with the potential to destroy a good portion of an opponent’s nuclear force on the ground. Submarine launched weapons (SLBMs), on the other hand, are extremely stabilizing. They can’t be targeted by an enemy, and their invulnerability make a successful first strike impossible. Money spent on ICBMs is wasted, because spending on land-based missiles doesn’t provide any more marginal deterrence over naval nuclear forces. Eliminating both American and Russian land-based ICBMs would be a very good way to cut the world’s nuclear arsenal, reduce the risk of accidental nuclear war, and save money in both countries. However, there are reasons to think this won’t happen anytime soon:

  1. The Obama administration’s difficulty passing the recent New START treaty in the Senate demonstrate that a vocal portion of the Republican party does not approve of cutting the US’s nuclear arsenal at all, despite nearly the entire US military and diplomatic establishment’s support for the treaty. While a good portion of this opposition was politically motivated, it’s worth remembering that the New START treaty was fairly limited and broadly uncontroversial- eliminating an entire leg of the US’s nuclear triad will be very unpopular in parts of the American political establishment. Given the structure of the Senate, even limited opposition to eliminating US ICBMs could be fatal.
  2. Submarine-launched missiles are fielded by the US Navy, while ICBMs are operated by the Air Force. Something tells me that the Air Force won’t be happy to give up such a politically important and well funded asset. Services value the importance nuclear forces give them; in the late 1940s the US Navy went to great lengths to acquire carrier launched bombers and end the Air Force monopoly on nuclear weapons. Even in the post-Cold War era the Air Force will exert significant political pressure to retain the ICBM mission.
  3. The United States will not unilaterally eliminate a significant portion of its nuclear arsenal- cuts to US land-based ICBMs must be matched by comparable reductions in the Russian arsenal for this measure to be politically acceptable. However, there are reasons to suspect that the Russians won’t agree to such a drastic restructuring of their nuclear arsenal. Russia nuclear forces are much more biased towards land-based missiles than the US’s. Russia currently fields roughly 1,500 land-based warheads on 500 individual missiles. America’s number of land-based missile roughly corresponds with Russia’s, but the US’s only fielded ICBM, the LGM-30, only carries one warhead, so the number of US land-based warheads is limited by the number of individual missiles. The maximum current American SLBM arsenal is 1,700 warheads on 280 missiles, fielded on 14 class submarines. Russian SLBM forces are much more limited– the Russians currently field only 625 warheads on 175 missiles. Additionally, sub-launched ballistic missiles are more expensive than their land-based counterparts. The unit cost American LGM-30 Minuteman missiles, currently the only ICBM in the US arsenal, is $7 million, while the cost of the US Navy’s current SLBM, the UGM-133 Trident II, is $30.9 million. Russian missiles show a similar price difference. Eliminating the ICBM portion of the Russian nuclear triad while still maintaining nuclear parity with the US would require the construction of a significant number of new missile submarines, as well as procuring expensive additional SLBMs. This is a significant cost- the unit price of Russia’s new Borei class ballistic missile submarine is about $890 million, while the equivalent US Ohio class cost $2 billion. Given modern Russia’s chronic difficulty financing new military acquisitions it is unlikely that the Russians would agree to such a drastic and expensive restructuring of their nuclear forces. This inevitable Russian unwillingness bear the cost of nuclear force restructuring rather than simple reduction means the US will not eliminate its ICBM arsenal anytime in the foreseeable future.
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