Lawmakers Want to Retain ICBM Force

Wade Boese

Western lawmakers are seeking to prevent changes or cuts to the U.S. force of deployed nuclear-armed ICBMs. Currently, 500 Minuteman III missiles are dispersed across Montana, North Dakota, and Wyoming.

Spurring the legislators’ campaign is a concern that the Pentagon’s forthcoming Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) might recommend cutting some ICBMs or converting some of them to carry conventional warheads. The QDR is a study the Pentagon conducts every four years to assess whether it has the proper mix of forces and weapons to meet current and future threats to U.S. security.

Key senators have endorsed legislation reaffirming support for the existing ICBM force, and a trio of House Republicans has offered a bill with a similar purpose.

In the Senate, Armed Services Committee Chairman John Warner (R-Va.) and ranking member Carl Levin (D-Mich.) have agreed to include as part of the pending defense authorization bill a statement that it is U.S. policy to continue deploying 500 ICBMs unless international developments warrant a change. This language, if adopted, would not be legally binding.

Representatives Dennis Rehberg (R-Mont.), Barbara Cubin (R-Wyo.), and Rob Bishop (R-Utah) introduced a bill Oct. 7 simply declaring, “It is the policy of the United States to maintain a land-based intercontinental ballistic missile force of 500 Minuteman III missiles.” It has been referred to the House Armed Services Committee, and it is uncertain when the committee might consider the proposal.

In a Sept. 21 letter to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, the 10 senators from Colorado, Montana, North Dakota, Utah, and Wyoming urged against trimming the ICBM force because it “represents a nearly insurmountable hedge against strategic surprise.” The bipartisan group further argued, “We must maintain force levels more than sufficient to dissuade any potential adversary from pursuing parity with our forces.”

By Dec. 31, 2012, the United States is committed to fielding no more than 2,200 strategic nuclear warheads primed for delivery by its ICBMs, submarines, and bombers. This level was agreed to with Russia in the May 2002 Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT). (See ACT, June 2002.)

However, the agreement’s limit expires at the end of 2012, freeing the United States to increase its deployed forces. SORT also did not cap how many warheads the two sides could store, and existing U.S. plans envision keeping as many as another 4,000 nuclear warheads in lower states of readiness. In sum, the total strategic U.S. nuclear stockpile is expected to number around 5,000 to 6,000 warheads early next decade.

The only country with comparable nuclear and missile forces to the United States is Russia, which the Bush administration claims is no longer an enemy but an emerging partner. Still, the senators noted that Moscow controls more ICBMs than Washington and asserted, “For this reason, we do not believe our ICBM force should be a strong candidate for paring back.” As of July 1, the Kremlin claimed to have 585 ICBMs under the terms of the 1991 START agreement limiting U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear delivery vehicles.

In comparison, China currently maintains roughly 20 nuclear-armed ICBMs capable of striking the United States and has a modernization plan underway that the U.S. intelligence community assesses might lead to a fivefold increase of this force. Iran and North Korea have yet to flight-test a long-range ballistic missile. Although North Korea is suspected of having enough bomb-making material for several nuclear weapons, it is unknown whether Pyongyang has actually manufactured such arms, and Iran is generally judged to be years away from producing the requisite material. Either plutonium or highly enriched uranium is needed to make a nuclear weapon.

At least one senator has admitted that part of his motivation to preserve the existing ICBM force stems from domestic concerns and not foreign threats. “Keeping the ICBMs at Malmstrom is about keeping good-paying jobs in our state,” Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) said Sept. 21.

Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana hosts 200 Minuteman IIIs. The remaining 300 missiles are split between Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota and Francis E. Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming.

First deployed in 1970, the Minuteman III is expected to begin nearing the end of its service life around 2018. Air Force Space Command, which operates and maintains the ICBM force, recently completed a study on possible Minuteman III successors, but the study’s recommendations are classified while undergoing further review. (See ACT, October 2005.)

In October, the command also launched a one-year study to evaluate options for a “prompt global strike” capability. One concept floated frequently is replacing some nuclear warheads on ICBMs with conventional warheads so the missiles can be used to attack targets anywhere in the world on short notice. Approximately 30 minutes would be the maximum flight time required.

The senators warned Rumsfeld against this approach. “Basing conventional ICBMs within the current nuclear missile fields raises extremely troubling issues for strategic stability, while transferring missiles from those fields to support the conventional mission would unduly weaken nuclear deterrence,” they wrote. An oft-discussed concern is that Russia or China might mistake the launch of a conventionally armed ICBM as a nuclear attack against them and retaliate in kind.