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“We continue to count on the valuable contributions of the Arms Control Association.”

– President Joe Biden
June 2, 2022
April 2016
Edition Date: 
Wednesday, March 30, 2016
Cover Image: 

Air Force Seeks Mobile ICBM Option

April 2016

By Kingston Reif

The U.S. Air Force is planning to design a next generation of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) that will have the capability to be deployed on mobile launchers, a knowledgeable source told Arms Control Today last month.

Initial Air Force estimates suggest that it would cost roughly $400 million in development funding to provide the “modularity” that would allow this option, the source said.

A decision by the United States to deploy ICBMs on a mobile platform would represent an unprecedented development in U.S. nuclear strategy. The United States explored two mobile ICBM options during the Cold War—the Peacekeeper, which would have been carried by railcars, and the small ICBM, or Midgetman, which would have been carried by trucks—but both programs were canceled before they became operational.

Developing transportable ICBM forces would cost at least $80 billion more over the next 50 years than retaining only silo-based missiles, according to Air Force estimates.

In an email exchange last month, Maj. Robert Leese, an Air Force spokesman, confirmed that the service is pursuing a replacement for the silo-based Minuteman III system “that will provide the option for alternative modes of operation in the future.” The replacement is known as the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD).

Leese declined to provide additional details, saying that “[t]he design features and the total cost required to support this option will be evaluated” later in the acquisition process.

A 2014 report by the RAND Corp. on the future of the ICBM force said a “mobile missile must be designed and built to more-demanding specifications then a silo-based ICBM,” such as remaining “reliable under the rigors of periodic movement.” The Minuteman III currently is not capable of being put on a mobile platform.

The requirement to examine future ICBM mobility appears to have originated with the 2010 “Nuclear Posture Review Report.” The document stated that the Defense Department would study “new modes of ICBM basing that enhance survivability and further reduce any incentives for prompt launch.” Under this argument, a mobile ICBM would enhance the overall survivability of the ICBM force by making the missile more difficult to target and destroy, thereby reducing the pressure the president might feel in the event of a nuclear attack to use ICBMs quickly lest they be destroyed.

The current Air Force proposal for replacing the Minuteman III calls for procuring 642 replacement missiles and rebuilding the existing missile infrastructure at an estimated acquisition cost of $62.3 billion (in then-year dollars) over the next 30 years. (See ACT, July/August 2015.)

That number of missiles would allow the United States to have a capability extending into the 2070s to deploy 400 ICBMs, the number that the United States will have in 2018 under the terms of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START).

To meet the treaty limits, the Defense Department has said it will reduce the U.S. arsenal from its current level—441 deployed missiles as of September 2015—while retaining 50 nondeployed missile launchers.

Leese said that, under the GBSD program, the Air Force is proposing to build “an improved system” that replaces the entire Minuteman III flight system, including the re-entry vehicles, guidance system, and propulsion system. The program also would renovate the associated missile-launch facilities, launch control centers, and command-and-control system, he said. The Nuclear Security and Deterrence Monitor reported last August that the plan is to replace the missiles first, followed by the support systems. The program is scheduled to achieve an initial operating capability of nine missiles by fiscal year 2029, the report said.

The Obama administration is requesting $114 million for the program in fiscal year 2017, an increase of almost $39 million over the appropriation for the current fiscal year. (See ACT, March 2016.)

The knowledgeable source said that, under the Air Force plan, the replacement missiles that will be fielded between 2028 and 2036 will not include mobile missiles.

ICBMs make up the land-based leg of the U.S. nuclear triad of delivery systems, which also consists of submarine-launched missiles and long-range bombers. The bombers can carry air-launched cruise missiles and gravity bombs.

The Minuteman III, which has a range of more than 8,000 miles, was first fielded in 1970 with a planned service life of 10 years. Several multibillion-dollar life extension programs have kept the missile in service for more than 40 years.

Costs Revealed

In 2014 the Air Force completed an analysis of alternatives to sustain the ICBM force beyond the anticipated end of the Minuteman III’s service life in 2030.

The analysis focused on three alternatives: a “baseline” option that would extend the life of the Minuteman III through 2075, a “replacement system” that would “capitaliz[e]” on the existing Minuteman III silo infrastructure, and a “hybrid” option that would mix the existing Minuteman III silo infrastructure with new road-mobile ICBMs.

The analysis ultimately recommended that the Air Force proceed with the replacement option. The total life-cycle cost of this approach was estimated at $159 billion (in fiscal year 2014 constant dollars) between fiscal years 2016 and 2075, according to Leese.

The baseline option was estimated to cost $160 billion and the hybrid option $242 billion.

Leese said that mobile forces would not have been deployed until around 2050 under the hybrid option. 

Incremental Upgrade Rejected

Like the Air Force, the 2014 RAND study ruled out basic sustainment of the Minuteman III as a realistic follow-on option, noting that “replacement of failed items with exact replicas is not possible in some instances.”

The RAND study took a more favorable view of an approach to sustaining the Minuteman III beyond 2030 that the authors called “incremental modernization,” which differed from the three main alternatives that the Air Force considered. The report said maintaining the missile through continued life extension programs and “gradual upgrades is a relatively inexpensive way to retain current ICBM capabilities.”

The study identified two challenges to this approach. First, the number of Minuteman III missile bodies is declining due to test launches. Based on the current testing pace, maintaining a force of 400 missiles, as is the plan under New START, would deplete the test inventory by 2035. Second, the report said incremental modernization would be “viable” only if the capability the Minuteman III provides “is not substantially changed.”

In the March email exchange, Leese said the analysis of alternatives “looked at a ‘phased’ implementation of” system “improvements” but did not recommend this option. “Incremental modernization is hindered by” the near-term need to upgrade key parts of the missile “and the remaining elements of the weapon system,” such as ground security and communications, he said.

This approach would also increase the near-term cost of sustaining the Minuteman III, Leese added.

Meanwhile, an Air Force official told Politico last October that “as enemy capabilities continue to progress...more advanced technologies are required to meet” the ICBM mission. The official did not specify what new technologies would be required or if a future mobile option is desired to enhance the U.S. capability.

A Feb. 17 story in The Daily Beast cited concerns among some military officials that the Minuteman III lacks the required accuracy to destroy key hardened targets.

In addition, Gen. Robin Rand, the commander of the Air Force Global Strike Command, told lawmakers at a House Armed Services Committee hearing on March 2 that the Minuteman III “will have a difficult time surviving” against missile defenses or other anti-missile capabilities—known as “anti-area access denial”—that potential adversaries are expected to possess “in the 2030 and beyond time period.”

When asked to clarify whether future Russian or Chinese missile defenses could prevent the Minuteman III from delivering nuclear warheads to their targets, a second Air Force spokesman said in an email last month that the “[s]pecifics regarding the survivability of the Minuteman III weapon system are classified.” The spokesman added that the GBSD program will “address future threats, especially those that may emerge in a post-2030 Anti-Access/Area Denial environment.”

A second knowledgeable source who has been briefed on the GBSD program questioned the Air Force’s approach to replacing the Minuteman III. The source said in an interview that the Air Force had yet to adequately explain why the Minuteman III could not be sustained until the 2040s, thereby allowing the Air Force to defer until then its decision on whether to build a replacement system.

Todd Harrison, director of defense budget analysis and a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, wrote in a January report that “delaying GBSD by five years would yield savings in the early 2020s averaging $2 billion annually.”

Deploying intercontinental ballistic missiles on mobile launchers would represent an unprecedented development in U.S. nuclear strategy.

New Missile Defense Concepts Advance

April 2016

By Kingston Reif

The Obama administration’s fiscal year 2017 budget request would increase funding to improve the capability of the U.S. system intended for protection of the U.S. homeland against long-range missiles launched from North Korea or Iran and the pursuit of advanced technology efforts to ensure the system stays ahead of foreign missile threats.

These proposed increases come amid growing concerns from high-ranking military officials that the current U.S. strategy to defeat adversary ballistic missiles is “unsustainable.”

Some of the advanced anti-missile technologies the Defense Department is pursuing, such as airborne lasers to zap missiles in the early stages of their flight, have been unsuccessfully pursued in the past.

Overall, the administration is asking for $8.5 billion for missile defense efforts in fiscal year 2017, a decrease of $500 million, or 5.5 percent, below what the administration requested for fiscal year 2016. In the request for fiscal year 2017, $7.5 billion would be for the Missile Defense Agency (MDA).

Congress appropriated $8.3 billion for the MDA, which is part of the Defense Department, for fiscal year 2016.

At a Feb. 9 press briefing at the Pentagon, Vice Adm. James Syring, the director of the MDA, said that although the agency’s fiscal year 2016 budget request projected a decrease in funding for fiscal year 2017, the bipartisan budget deal approved by Congress and signed by President Barack Obama last October set new spending levels that reduced the MDA’s fiscal year 2017 request by an additional $300 million.

The program to protect the U.S. homeland against a limited long-range missile attack, known as the Ground-Based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system, would receive $862 million under the budget proposal, a decrease of $408 million, or 32 percent, from last year’s enacted level of $1.3 billion. The request keeps on track the Defense Department’s plan to increase the number of interceptors in Alaska and California from 30 to 44 by the end of fiscal year 2017 in response to concerns about North Korea’s growing nuclear and long-range missile capabilities. (See ACT, April 2014.) Fiscal year 2017 begins on Oct. 1.

In addition, the request would provide $274 million to design a new kill vehicle for the GMD system, a slight decrease of $5 million below the fiscal year 2016 appropriation of $279 million. Over the next five years, however, the MDA is seeking $2.2 billion for this effort, a major increase over the $626 million the agency was projecting to request from fiscal years 2016 through 2020.

The kill vehicle sits atop the interceptor’s booster rocket and is intended to collide with a target in outer space.

There have been serious concerns about the GMD interceptors since they were rushed into service by the George W. Bush administration in 2004. In response to these concerns, the MDA announced in March 2014 that it would build and deploy by 2020 a redesigned kill vehicle that would be more reliable and cost effective than the current versions. (See ACT, July/August 2014.)

The budget request also seeks a funding increase for a new ground-based sensor to provide enhanced tracking and discrimination capabilities for the GMD system. The program would receive $317 million in fiscal year 2017, an increase of $180 million over the current-year level.

In a Feb. 17 report, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) repeated its warnings about the strategy the MDA is pursuing to improve the GMD system. According to the report, the MDA “has not demonstrated several key homeland missile defense capabilities and is relying on high-risk acquisition practices to achieve its goal of fielding 44 interceptors by the end of fiscal year 2017.”

The report also raised concerns that the MDA is pursuing “an aggressive schedule to begin fielding” the redesigned kill vehicle by 2020 and that it is “unclear whether MDA has allowed enough time for modifying and maturing” the desired components and technologies for the redesign.

Advanced Technology Sought

According to budget documents released on Feb. 9, the fiscal year 2017 proposal supports the MDA’s efforts to develop advanced technologies “to adapt as the threat changes in the future.”

The request includes $72 million, an increase of $21 million above the fiscal year 2016 appropriation, to advance work on a next-generation laser system “capable of defeating advanced threats and [missile] raids more efficiently than existing missile interceptors.”

The request would provide $90 million, an increase of $63 million from the current-year level, to place a sensor on the MQ-9 reaper drone to improve missile tracking and design a laser that could be put on unmanned aerial vehicles, as drones are more formally known, to destroy intercontinental ballistic missiles in their boost phase—that is, the early part of the missile’s ascent when the missile’s rocket motor is still burning.

Syring told lawmakers at a House Armed Services Committee hearing on March 19, 2015, that the MDA’s goal is to deploy a laser-armed drone by 2025.

The MDA also is requesting $72 million, an increase of $10 million above the fiscal year 2016 enacted level, to develop a new “multi-object kill vehicle” to allow a single GMD interceptor to destroy multiple targets. The program is envisioned as a follow-on to the redesigned vehicle the MDA is seeking to deploy by 2020.

Syring said at the March 2015 hearing that kill vehicles capable of destroying multiple objects “will revolutionize our missile defense architecture, substantially reducing the interceptor inventory required to defeat an evolving and more capable threat to the homeland.”

The George W. Bush administration initiated programs to put a high-powered laser on a Boeing 747 and develop a multiple-object kill vehicle, but both efforts were discontinued by the Obama administration during its first term due to concerns about their effectiveness and cost. The airborne laser program was canceled in 2012 after $5.3 billion had been spent on the program. The Defense Department spent $700 million developing a multiple-object kill vehicle concept before shelving it in 2009.

Cost Effectiveness Questioned

The MDA’s efforts to improve the effectiveness of the GMD system against current and potential threats come as senior military leaders are raising alarms about the sustainability of current U.S. missile defense efforts.

Adm. Bill Gortney, the head of the North American Aerospace Defense Command and U.S. Northern Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee on March 10 that the U.S. missile defense system “is in an unsustainable cost model, which has us postured to shoot down inexpensive rockets with very expensive ones.”

Gortney said that the Defense Department must augment current defenses with capabilities “designed to defeat ballistic missile threats in the boost phase as well as before they are launched.”

He added that the MDA “is working on emerging technology that will enable us to employ...methods to defeat ballistic missile threats” without physically destroying them with an interceptor “when we receive indications that a launch is imminent.” Gortney did not specify what these methods would entail.

Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work stated in March 2015 that the Pentagon is seeking to develop electronic warfare tools to provide additional options to defeat the increasingly sophisticated missile capabilities of U.S. adversaries. (See ACT, April 2015.)

The Obama administration’s fiscal year 2017 budget request would increase funding to improve the capability of the U.S. homeland missile defense system.

Nuclear Disarmament Summitry

April 2016

By Daryl G. Kimball

The positive results of the nuclear security summit process from 2010 to 2016 demonstrate how high-level, sustained leadership can catalyze action on a global problem: the threat of terrorists gaining access to nuclear weapons-usable material. More work lies ahead, but the intensive, six-year-long summit process has significantly reduced nuclear vulnerabilities in key states.

As with preventing nuclear terrorism, reducing the catastrophic threats posed by nuclear weapons is a global enterprise that requires renewed leadership, dialogue, and action on the part of all the world’s nations.

Unfortunately, 70 years after the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, progress on disarmament is stalled; the risk of nuclear competition and conflict is growing; and several states are expanding or upgrading their nuclear arsenals. There are no active bilateral or multilateral negotiations to further regulate, cap, or reduce the stockpiles of any of the world’s nine nuclear-armed states.

The possessors of the two largest arsenals, Russia and the United States, each deploy more than 1,800 strategic warheads on several hundred bombers and missiles—far more than necessary to deter nuclear attack.

In 2013, President Barack Obama announced he is prepared to cut the U.S. strategic nuclear arsenal by an additional one-third. So far, Russian President Vladimir Putin has rebuffed the proposal and failed to make a counteroffer. Bilateral talks on further nuclear reductions are on hold indefinitely.

Meanwhile, other nuclear-armed states, such as China, France, India, and Pakistan, sit on the nuclear disarmament sidelines. Leaders in Beijing, Islamabad, and New Delhi profess support for disarmament and “minimum” deterrence, but each is pursuing new land- and sea-based nuclear delivery systems. Although smaller in number, these arsenals are increasingly dangerous and destabilizing.

For nearly two decades, the key countries at the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva have been unable to reach consensus to begin negotiations on a fissile material control treaty or to start nuclear disarmament discussions.

The 2015 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference failed to produce an updated, meaningful action plan on disarmament that builds on previous disarmament commitments. The next review conference is another four years away.

Frustrated by the slow pace of progress, more than 150 states attended conferences on the humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons use. Earlier this year, many non-nuclear-weapon states joined an open-ended working group to discuss possible measures “to fill the legal gap for the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons.”

Some states and civil society campaigners want to launch talks on a treaty to ban nuclear weapons possession or use. Such a ban is eventually a necessary step toward a world without nuclear weapons, but it will not by itself change today’s dangerous nuclear doctrines or eliminate nuclear arsenals. It is not a substitute for the difficult work and bold leadership necessary to reduce nuclear risks and head off new dangers.

As Henry Kissinger, Sam Nunn, William Perry, and George Shultz argued in an op-ed in 2013, a new multilateral effort for nuclear disarmament dialogue is needed. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon suggested in 2009 that the UN Security Council convene a summit on nuclear disarmament.

Now is the time to seriously consider a high-level summit approach to help overcome the impasse on disarmament. Leaders from a core group of states could invite their counterparts from a representative group of 20 to 30 nuclear- and non-nuclear-weapon states to join a one- or two-day summit on steps to achieve a world free of nuclear weapons.

This high-level meeting could be a starting point for ongoing, regular disarmament discussions at the expert and ministerial levels. As Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida has argued, the dialogue on disarmament should be based on a clear understanding of the devastating impacts of nuclear weapons use and an objective assessment of the security concerns of states.

Borrowing a concept from the nuclear security summit process, all participants should be encouraged to bring “house gifts”—specific actions by states that would concretely diminish the threat of nuclear weapons use, freeze or reduce the number of nuclear weapons, reduce the role of nuclear weapons, bring into force key agreements such as the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, or make their nuclear programs more transparent.

For instance, U.S. and Russian leaders could jointly announce they will resume negotiations on a follow-on treaty to the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. Further U.S.-Russian cuts, which are possible even without a new treaty, if combined with a pause in the nuclear buildups by China, India, and Pakistan, could help establish the conditions for future multilateral disarmament talks.

A nuclear disarmament and risk reduction summit process would complement the ongoing dialogue on nuclear terms and concepts involving the five NPT nuclear-weapon states and the humanitarian impacts initiative. Such a process by no means would be easy. But by putting the spotlight on the issue, it could spur new ideas and momentum. 

The positive results of the nuclear security summit process from 2010 to 2016 demonstrate how high-level, sustained leadership can catalyze action...

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