May/June 2021Vol. XXXIII No. 5

Don’t Renew the ICBM Force, Eliminate It

Robert P. Redwine, Jonathan A. King

A pressing issue that is currently under consideration in Washington, DC is whether to replace the aging deployment of InterContinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) with a new fleet of missiles. The Defense Department is moving forward with a plan to deploy a Ground Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD) which would require an initial investment of about $100B and an estimated overall investment of $264B through 2075. Critics assert that such actions by the U.S. might lead to a new nuclear arms race and would actually decrease national security by increasing the risk of intentional or inadvertent use of nuclear weapons. Senator Ed Markey (MA) and Representative Ro Khanna (CA-17) have recently introduced the Investing in Cures Before Missiles (ICBM) Act that would shift funds from the GBSD to investments in the battle against biothreats.

There are indeed serious issues to consider related to the deployment of ground-based missiles in general. The United States nuclear arsenal currently has three components: ground-based missiles, submarine-based missiles, and weapons to be delivered by airplanes. The fleet of ICBMs is composed of Minuteman III missiles and is deployed in relatively uninhabited areas of the western continental U.S. The idea is, of course, that if the ICBMs were attacked by an enemy the resulting casualties would hopefully be minimized. However, we know now that if any significant number of nuclear weapons are exploded on the Earth it will be an existential threat to all humankind and to the planet.

Because the locations of the ground-based missiles, unlike those of the submarine-based and airplane-based weapons, are well known to our enemies, they can be viewed as attractive targets for those enemies. In fact, the U.S. policy is that the ground-based missiles would be launched “on warning” so as to avoid destruction by an enemy targeting them. In today’s world, cyberthreats to the launch on warning system are an increasing concern. Several experts have indicated that the ground-based missile system has become a larger threat to our safety than a deterrence to our enemies. For example, William J. Perry, Secretary of Defense during the Clinton administration, has argued that “we simply do not need to rebuild all of the weapons we had during the Cold War” and singled out the GBSD as unnecessary. Also, James Mattis, a retired Marine Corps general who served as Secretary of Defense in the Trump administration, has stated that getting rid of ICBMs “would reduce the false alarm danger.”

There are other disadvantages associated with the lack of mobility of ICBMs that have become more important in recent times. Both China and North Korea are nuclear-armed states and viewed as largely our adversaries. However, we would not be able to launch ICBMs in the direction of China or North Korea without violating Russian airspace, which would create a serious separate problem. Therefore, in practice our nuclear deterrence relative to China and North Korea depends only on submarine-based and airplane-based weapons.

Considering all of these issues, it seems clear that it makes no sense to continue with the GBSD program. The United States should instead decommission its ground-based missile system, as it poses more of a risk than a benefit to our national safety. We also hope that if indeed the ground-based missile system is decommissioned, it will serve as recognition that nuclear weapons systems pose existential risks to all of humanity and that the world should move as quickly as possible to eliminate all nuclear weapons.

Returning to the cost issue, even if these missiles are never used the high cost of their design, manufacture, and maintenance would rob desperately-needed civilian programs. Over the past few years, the Pentagon budget has accounted for more than half of the entire Congressional discretionary budget – our income tax dollars. One of the reasons the NIH budget – responsible for tackling all of the diseases and ills that afflict our population – is only ~4% of the Congressional budget has been the diversion of our tax dollars to weapons purchases. The contributions of our MIT faculty, students, and staff to national well-being are primarily in the civilian sector. We hope that the readers of the Faculty Newsletter will become active in opposing the deployment of the GBSD system. In the near term this would include supporting the Markey/Khanna legislation to move funding from the GBSD system to needed biothreat prevention.