Missile Incident Has Zero Impact on New START

Volume 1, Number 27, October 28, 2010

Misinformed sources, such as Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY), are claiming that the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) is somehow in trouble as a result of a recent missile communications incident in Wyoming.  These claims are simply false, and the Senate should not let this incident get in the way of ratifying New START when it returns to Washington after the elections.

The significance of the Wyoming incident has been overblown, and its link to New START is non-existant.  "Based on our understanding of the situation right now, as the Air Force has described it, it was not a significant disruption; it was a technical problem," Defense Department spokesman Col. Dave Lapan told the Associated Press.

The missiles in question could have still been launched if needed, and even assuming they could not, the United States had 1,900 other nuclear weapons ready to go at the time.  And if improvements to the U.S. nuclear command and control system are needed, New START would not prevent them.

The facts are clear:

  1. The 50 missiles in question could have been launched if needed.
    On Oct. 23, according to reports, a communications failure occurred involving 50 Minuteman III Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs), based at F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming and loaded with nuclear warheads.  This incident, which lasted less than one hour, could have prevented officers at the base from launching the missiles.  This is troubling, but not catastrophic; the missiles could have been launched from air-born command and control systems.  An administration official, speaking about the president's ability to control nuclear forces, told The Atlantic: "At no time did the president's ability decrease."
  2. 1,900 other nuclear weapons were deployed at the time.
    The United States deploys a total of 450 Minuteman III ICBMs on constant alert along with 336 Trident II Submarine Launched Ballistic Missiles (SLBMs) based on invulnerable submarines at sea and 94 Strategic Bombers that can be loaded and launched on short order.  Thus, even without the 50 ICBMs in question, the United States at the time still had over 800 strategic missiles and bombers with 1,900 nuclear warheads in its active force.  Moreover, even if this incident had happened after New START had been fully implemented, the United States would still have had over 600 missiles and bombers with 1,500 nuclear warheads ready to go.
  3. New START does not prevent improvements to command and control systems.
    The Oct. 23 incident at Warren should be investigated and, if needed, command and control systems should be improved.  However, New START would not in any way prevent such improvements.  In fact, the U.S. military is planning to invest $80 billion in its nuclear weapons and production complex and $100 billion in its nuclear delivery systems over the next decade, while New START would be in force.
  4. New START would reduce the nuclear threat from Russia and resume on-site inspections.
    If Senators are worried about nuclear threats to the United States, they should support New START.  The treaty would reduce hundreds of Russian nuclear weapons that would otherwise be aimed at the United States.  It also would resume on-site inspections in Russia that stopped when the 1991 START treaty expired last December.

Sen. Barrasso Over-Reaches

In response to the Oct. 23 incident, New START opponents predictably drew their cynical swords.  "The recent failure reinforces the need for the United States to maintain 450 ICBMs to ensure a strong nuclear defense," said Sen. Barrasso. "Before ratifying this treaty, the Senate must ensure we modernize our own nuclear weapons and strengthen our national security."

It should be noted that Sen. Barrasso’s state is host to Warren Air Force Base and its 150 ICBMs, and that New START could reduce that force.  Sen. Barrasso voted against New START on Sept. 16 in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which approved the treaty with a 14-4 bipartisan vote.  Sen. Barrasso offered an amendment in committee to require the United States to maintain all 450 Minuteman III’s, rather than reduce them to 420 under START.  The amendment failed by voice vote.

Instead of playing politics with U.S. national security, New START opponents should listen to current and former U.S. military officers who overwhelmingly support New START.  The Senate should ignore Sen. Barrasso’s desperate arguments and approve New START as soon as possible. - TOM Z. COLLINA

For more information, please see:

U.S. Strategic Nuclear Forces Under New START http://www.armscontrol.org/factsheets/USStratNukeForceNewSTART

Twelve Reasons to Support New START http://www.armscontrol.org/issuebriefs/TwelveReasonsNewSTART