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January 19, 2011
U.S. Begins Trimming ICBM Fleet

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Abby Doll

On July 12, Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana, home to the largest ICBM force in the United States, began deactivating the first of 50 Minuteman III missiles slated for retirement. The United States will retain 450 Minuteman IIIs in service, with the missiles spread evenly between Malmstrom and Air Force bases in North Dakota and Wyoming.

Since the United States retired the last MX, or Peacekeeper, ICBM in September 2005, the Minuteman III has been the sole ICBM in the U.S. inventory. In addition to these ICBMs, current U.S. plans envision that nuclear weapons will also be deployed on 14 ballistic submarines, 21 B-2 bombers, and 56 B-52 bombers by 2012.

The Department of Defense announced its decision for the 50-missile reduction in its 2006 Quadrennial Defense Review. Because the reductions would affect 500 base personnel and reduce the funding allocated to Malmstrom, Montana legislators, in concert with other congressional delegations, delayed the action with an amendment requiring the Pentagon to justify the missile cuts first. (See ACT, May 2007. )  

A Pentagon report submitted March 18 defended the reduction, saying it would not weaken the U.S. strategic deterrent and would help to sustain the remaining missile force into 2030. Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. T. Michael Moseley then issued the final order for reduction on June 29.

The Air Force selected the 564th Missile Squadron at Malmstrom for deactivation because of its unique communications and launch control systems. Known as the “odd squad,” its decommissioning will trim $3 million from annual expenses and eliminate the need for additional training, personnel, and logistics support.

In a seven-and-a-half-hour procedure, two Malmstrom maintenance teams carefully removed both the missile’s booster stage and the re-entry vehicle containing the nuclear warheads. A security force squadron then escorted the components back to the nearby Malmstrom base. At some point, the National Nuclear Security Administration, a division of the Department of Energy that oversees the U.S. nuclear weapons complex, will collect the warheads and transport them to an undisclosed location.

The teams will repeat this procedure for each remaining missile. If the process remains on schedule, Malmstrom will deactivate one missile a week and complete this first phase by August 2008.

In the second phase, crews will then remove all hazardous materials and reusable items from the launch-control facilities and missile silos. The Air Force will transfer useful missile components to Hill Air Force Base in Ogden, Utah, for storage, where they will be available for operational use or for flight-test programs at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.  

Malmstrom plans to place the launch facilities under a “30 percent caretaker status” in which the Air Force will board up and lock all windows and doors and periodically inspect the sites for trespassing and vandalism. Unless directed, the sites will not be eliminated and will remain available for possible future use.

Although the Air Force Space Command has studied a future replacement or complement ICBM for the Minuteman III, its most recent analysis recommends retaining the existing Minuteman III arsenal through a series of gradual upgrades. These upgrades, including improvements on guidance components, command and control systems, and booster and re-entry vehicles, will begin in 2020.