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– Suzanne DiMaggio
Senior Fellow, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
April 15, 2019
U.S. Poised to Cut Ballistic Missiles

Wade Boese

As early as the end of May, the Air Force might start trimming the U.S. long-range nuclear ballistic missile force by 10 percent despite the objections of a few lawmakers. The service also is moving forward with plans to cut its nuclear-armed cruise missile fleet by approximately two-thirds.

The reductions are part of the U.S. effort to work toward fulfilling the May 2002 Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT). That agreement requires U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals to have less than 2,200 operationally deployed strategic warheads each on Dec. 31, 2012, although that ceiling will lapse at the end of that same day. In its last SORT implementation report, the Bush administration said the United States had 3,878 operationally deployed strategic warheads at the end of 2005. (See ACT, December 2006.)

The United States currently deploys 500 Minuteman III ICBMs in silos spread across the sparsely populated landscape of Montana, North Dakota, and Wyoming. Each missile is armed with one, two, or three nuclear warheads.

Minuteman IIIs, first deployed in 1970, are the only ICBM the United States fields as of September 2005, when it removed the last of 50 MX missiles from service. (See ACT, October 2005. ) Washington also maintains 14 ballistic missile submarines, 21 B-2 bombers, and 94 B-52 bombers for nuclear delivery missions. The Pentagon plans to cut the B-52 force to 56 aircraft.

As part of its Quadrennial Defense Review last year, the Pentagon recommended reducing the Minuteman III force to 450 missiles. (See ACT, March 2006. ) The review is conducted every four years to assess whether the military is fielding the proper armaments and forces to meet U.S. security requirements.

Led by lawmakers whose states house the missiles, Congress last fall passed a legislative requirement forbidding the Pentagon from starting the reduction until 30 days after supplying a report to Congress justifying the move. Legislators received that classified report March 16.

An Air Force official told Arms Control Today April 20 that the reductions will not begin before May 25 and will take two years to complete. Strategic Command is in charge of deployed U.S. nuclear forces, but Air Force Space Command staffs the crews that operate the ICBMs.

Warheads removed from the missiles will be turned over for storage to the Department of Energy’s semiautonomous National Nuclear Security Administration. The missiles will be shipped to Hill Air Force Base in Ogden, Utah, where they will be used for testing, including experiments to extend the service lives of the remaining Minuteman IIIs another decade to 2030. No final decision has been made about what to do with the empty silos.

The 50 missiles slated for reduction are those of the 564th Missile Squadron located at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana. Two hundred Minuteman IIIs are assigned to Malmstrom, while the other 300 are split between Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota and Francis E. Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming.

The 564th Missile Squadron, known as the “Odd Squad,” uses a different command and control system than the other squadrons. Retiring the 564th Missile Squadron will permit the Air Force to eliminate the separate training and equipment necessary for maintaining it.

Captain Elizabeth Mathias, chief of public affairs at Malmstrom, told Arms Control Today April 16 that shutting down the squadron will result in the loss of 500 base personnel. She also said the move would trim at least $3 million in annual spending, although she noted this sum does not account for the additional savings gained from cutting the separate training and depot costs.

Montana’s lawmakers in Congress are objecting to the proposed reduction. They contend that if the missiles are retired, U.S. security could be weakened and the local economy will suffer.

Montana’s Democratic senators, Max Baucus and Jon Tester, sent a letter March 16 to Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne asking him to reconsider the reduction. Similarly, Montana’s sole House member, Republican Denny Rehberg, issued a March 28 statement declaring, “Obviously, the Pentagon is not getting the message that eliminating these missiles would weaken our nation’s defense.”

All three lawmakers have said they will contest the reduction, although their options are limited. Baucus has suggested he might put holds on a few nominations to gain some leverage.

A congressional staffer familiar with the issue said in an April 17 Arms Control Today interview that the Montana delegation was seeking to win “some trade-offs” to benefit the base and surrounding communities. Indeed, Rehberg acknowledged in his statement that he will “look for new ways to expand Malmstrom’s mission,” while Tester stated in an April 20 press release that “we’ll fight tooth and nail for a new mission at the base.”

Meanwhile, the Air Force is starting to take a substantial portion of its nuclear-armed cruise missile fleet out of service. Assigned for delivery by bombers, these cruise missiles fly at subsonic speeds within the atmosphere and can maneuver. The Minuteman III missile travels through space on a ballistic trajectory toward its target.

Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld ordered the Air Force last Oct. 17 to decommission all AGM-129 Advanced Cruise Missiles (ACMs) and shrink the force of AGM-86 Air-Launched Cruise Missiles (ALCMs) to 528. Air Force fact sheets from early 2006 reported the service had approximately 460 ACMs and 1,142 ALCMs.

In March 28 prepared testimony to the Senate Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee, Air Force Major General Roger Burg said the service would not take “irreversible actions” to demilitarize and destroy retired cruise missiles until receiving “final congressional approval.” No serious congressional opposition has emerged to the plan.