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400 Minutemen to Midnight

ICBMs enjoy rock-solid support in Congress. A majority of Americans would scrap them, if they could.

Words: Jon Letman
Pictures: Anne Nygård
Date:

It’s early in the new year, but the hour is late. This week, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists announced that the hands of the symbolic Doomsday Clock would remain set at 100 seconds to midnight. This setting, which represents humanity’s proximity to self-annihilation, is the closest the metaphorical clock has been to midnight in its 75-year history.

The Doomsday Clock was first designed to illustrate the threats posed by nuclear weapons. More recently, the clock also reflects the threats of climate change, the COVID-19 pandemic, state-sponsored disinformation, disruptive technology, and nuclear weapons. Nothing embodies the notion of doomsday more starkly than the image of an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) rising from its silo roaring skyward at 18,000 miles per hour to deliver its nuclear payload to some unfortunate and unseen faraway place.

America’s ICBM force is comprised solely of Boeing’s LGM-30G Minuteman III, an 18-meter tower of cold steel multi-stage rockets overseen by the Air Force Global Strike Command. The US maintains 400 Minuteman III (plus 50 reserve silos) missiles which were first deployed in 1970, planted like doomsday seeds in hardened silos across the great American West.

The first iteration of the Minuteman dates back to the early 1960s, with Minuteman III production ending in 1978. Today, despite more than $7 billion spent in upgrades, improvements, and part replacements, the missile is slated to be retired and replaced with the brand new Ground Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD), expected to reach initial operational capability by 2029.

Replacing Minuteman III with GBSD is projected to cost $264 billion through 2075, although many analysts believe it will be over budget and behind schedule. The high cost of building a whole new strategic nuclear weapons system with more than 650 missiles plus another $14 billion or more for warheads defies current budgetary limitations. In 2020, an Air Force chief of staff openly acknowledged that the US cannot afford to modernize aging conventional weapons and nuclear weapons at the same time.

In the face of waxing and waning financial crises, affordable healthcare, and housing crises, education and employment crises — oh yeah, and a climate catastrophe and the collapse of the natural world — spending this much money on weapons which, if ever used, would lead to incalculable suffering and destruction, is controversial. Sort of.

This 2020 nationwide survey reveals a bipartisan majority of Americans support delaying GBSD or scrapping ICBMs altogether. Opponents of GBSD argue that the Minuteman III could be “life extended” before investing in a costly and, as they see it, unnecessary replacement. Among them is Matt Korda, senior research associate and project manager with the Nuclear Information Project of the Federation of American Scientists. Korda points to an Air Force-sponsored study that suggests GBSD could cost two to three times as much as life extending Minuteman III. Were that to happen, GBSD’s sole bid contractor (a very unusual occurrence for such a large contract) Northrop Grumman and its recently acquired solid rocket motor-producing subsidiaries would stand to lose a lot of money.

THE ICBM COALITION

The continuation of ICBMs — the land-based leg of the nuclear triad, the other two legs are sea-based (submarines) and air (bomber)-based — has rock-solid support from the Congressional ICBM Coalition, a bipartisan group of lawmakers from states that manufacture, test (Utah), or host Minuteman III on Air Force bases in North Dakota, Montana, and Wyoming. The coalition is unified, strong, and effective in preventing reductions to the land-based component of the triad.

In the face of waxing and waning financial crises, affordable healthcare, and housing crises, education and employment crises — oh yeah, and a climate catastrophe and the collapse of the natural world — spending this much money on weapons which, if ever used, would lead to incalculable suffering and destruction, is controversial. Sort of.

But, as William Hartung pointed out in Arms Control Today, Senate coalition members collectively received nearly $1.2 million in contributions from ICBM contractors between 2012 and 2020. Wyoming Sen. John Barrasso received $89,000 in campaign contributions while coalition co-chairs Montana Sen. Jon Tester and North Dakota Sen. John Hoeven received over $100,000 and $81,145 respectively.

In an emailed statement, Hoeven said, “The nuclear triad is an integral part of our national defense, and it is imperative that the US modernize all three legs of the triad to meet the real and growing threat from China, Russia, North Korea, and other adversaries. That’s why we continue efforts to ensure the modernization of our nuclear forces moves forward without delay, including the GBSD program to replace our aging Minuteman III. North Dakota is proud to support this vital capability on behalf of the nation.” 

Tester, who authored the Senate version of the defense appropriations bill which increases funding to develop GBSD to $2.55 billion said, “the effectiveness of ICBMs as our nation’s chief strategic deterrent will remain rooted in their reliability, and in their ability to stay ahead of the curve when it comes to the capabilities of our adversaries.”

Sen. Barrasso did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

CONCENTRATED POWER

Korda says there have been times when certain members of Congress (ICBM coalition) have overridden the Pentagon, arguing against any reduction of the ICBM force or actively playing a role in hastening the end of Minuteman III by effectively setting an arbitrary date of 2030 as a replacement deadline.

“There really is an incredible power that Congress has in dictating what the [nuclear] force posture will be in ways that usually ends up meaning that the US just keeps building more and more,” Korda says.

During the Cold War, military bases and defense contracts were gradually enmeshed into local economies across the country, Korda notes. “It’s the product of a really deliberate series of decision making that was done by the Pentagon and the US government… and now we’re seeing it’s really hard to uncouple those things.”

He cites research by Brown University’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs’ Costs of War Project which has examined how investing in non-military endeavors ultimately produces more jobs than military ones. Given the chance, it’s reasonable to expect residents in “nuclear sponge” communities — those where ICBMs would draw fire (destruction) in the event of a nuclear war — would welcome the opportunity to develop their communities in ways that don’t involve nuclear weapons.

SCIENTISTS SAY ‘NO’

As the clock runs out on Minuteman III, civil society, nuclear analysts, and scientists are speaking up. In December, nearly 700 scientists signed an open letter to President Biden imploring him to take a number of steps to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in US defense policy.

Among the measures they urged Biden to take was to life extend Minuteman III for up to 20 years instead of developing GBSD. Ultimately, the scientists insist the land-leg of the nuclear triad could be entirely abandoned in favor of a dyad comprised of submarines and bombers which, they argue, is more than enough to preserve a nuclear deterrent. 

They wrote: “We also urge you to consider eliminating silo-based ICBMs.” Maintaining ICBMs on alert could lead to the president feeling pressured to order a nuclear launch in a matter of minutes in response to a false warning.

THE PARADOX OF DETERRENCE

One of the letter’s signatories was Dr. Steve Fetter, a Science and Security Board member of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists and professor of public policy at the University of Maryland. He says that the foundation of deterrence is the ability to convince an adversary that if attacked with nuclear weapons, we could and would respond in kind. 

ICBMs, armed and ready 24/7/365, with their inherent “use-it-or-lose-it” vulnerability, provide a credible deterrent until they don’t. Whether by accident or miscalculation, the unintended use of ICBMs would shatter any notion of deterrence.

Were that to happen, Fetter hopes deterrence could be quickly re-established in order to avoid an all-out nuclear exchange, but says, “I don’t have high confidence that if nuclear weapons began to be used that we would be able to terminate their use quickly before hundreds or thousands were used.”

One of the great dilemmas of nuclear deterrence, Fetter notes, is instilling the belief in an adversary that an attack would be followed by retaliation, but adds, “But then retaliation itself does nothing to protect us, right? It’s only about punishment at that point so it’s kind of the paradox of deterrence itself.”

GLORY FOR SOME

As Minuteman missiles age, they are increasingly tested to ensure they work as intended. Four to five times a year, an unarmed Minuteman III is fired in what is called an Air Force Global Strike Command Minuteman III Operational Test Launch. In military parlance, the tests are known as “glory trips.” Their purpose is to “verify, validate, and improve the capability” of the ICBM force.

Glory trips begin at Vandenberg Space Force Base in California where a Minuteman III missile is launched towards Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands 4,200 miles away in the central Pacific.

Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) describes the tests thus: “A glory trip is similar in every way to a real nuclear missile launch, except that the missile’s Los Alamos-designed W78 warhead has been replaced with a joint test assembly (JTA) — also designed and built by the Lab — that replicates a W78 in every way except that it’s filled with sensors, not a nuclear device.”

One Air Force fellow working at LANL gushed his excitement watching the ICBM leave its silo: “There’s nothing cooler than hearing the roar of that missile. It shakes the whole base.”

From beneath a 110-ton silo cover, the Minuteman III rises, powered by solid fuel and 200,000 pounds of upward thrust, climbing 100,000 feet in a minute, soaring to its target, shedding stages as it flies. After ascending 700 miles above the earth, the re-entry vehicle, now a fraction of the original missile, with its guidance system intact, plunges earthward, until roughly 30 minutes later when it reaches the lagoon at Kwajalein Atoll. For safety purposes, the mid-corridor of the lagoon is designated a restricted zone and closed to all non-military people and boats. What remains of the test missile hits the water and sinks down to the bottom of the lagoon to join the other debris from previous tests.

Although glory trips are seen as having minimal environmental impact with the re-entry vehicle landing in empty areas of the ocean, Kwajalein Atoll is home to the Marshall Islands’ second largest population (close to 11,000 people) after the capital Majuro.

Three miles north of US Army Garrison Kwajalein and the Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Defense Test Site is densely populated Ebeye Island where just under 8,000 people live on an 80-acre sliver of land. Ebeye’s population swelled after Marshallese from other islands were relocated when the US conducted 67 explosive nuclear and thermonuclear tests between 1946-1958. In the early 1960s, residents of nearby tiny Lib Island and other areas of Kwajalein were also forcibly relocated as a result of US missile testing.

The explosions have stopped, but the health and environmental impacts continue and, thanks to glory trips, the missiles keep coming and long-term health and environmental concerns linger.

In 2021, the US paid over $22.6 million in land-use fees on a Kwajalein lease that runs through 2066 with a possible 20-year extension. The payment generates income for local land owners, but also contributes to financial dependency. During the missile tests, Marshallese residents are prohibited from entering the mid-atoll corridor, periodically disrupting local food collecting practices. Furthermore, decades of military presence has resulted in pesticide, lead, PCBs, and other military-industrial contamination in the waters near Kwajalein Island, posing health risks associated with eating fish and other sea life.

Meanwhile, glory trips continue to ensure ICBMs would operate as exactly as intended if ever used in war. Matt Korda says this raises a critical question about the conventional narrative that ICBMs are supposed to serve as a deterrent by presenting the ability to execute a pre-emptive strike.

“Let’s say that we accept those arguments,” Korda says. “We’re not going to know if they function properly or not until deterrence has already failed. In the event that we are even able to learn if the ICBMs functioned effectively or not or if a certain percentage of them fell apart when they exited their silos or didn’t launch properly, it wouldn’t matter. It’s already game over.”

TOMORROW’S GIFT

At the height of the Cold War in the mid-1980s, the US and Soviet Union had around 70,000 nuclear weapons. As the overall inventory declined precipitously and the threat of nuclear war appeared to recede, public awareness of nuclear matters also faded. Steve Fetter says public disengagement with nuclear issues has grown even as thousands of nuclear weapons remain deployed and ready to launch on warning, something that could happen at any moment, triggered by uncertainty, miscalculation, false alarm, or flawed judgment.

Nuclear weapons pose an unimaginable, almost incalculable threat to life on earth, and civilization as we understand it. Whether the Minuteman III or GBSD, land-based ICBMs remain invisible to the public. And while America is not the only nation developing new ICBMs (Russia, China, and North Korea all have their own versions), their continued development and deployment begs the question: How do ordinary citizens in the US or any other country benefit from these weapons?

If it takes politicians to make the decision to abandon nuclear weapons, then it’s also true that public pressure is necessary to drive politicians to change national security priorities. Without public awareness, attention, and action, ICBMs will continue to be built. Enormous sums of money will be poured into developing something which everyone agrees must never be used. It makes no sense.

So how to recapture the public’s attention and demand a reassessment of national priorities in a way that defines true security in terms of affordable housing, food, and health care? How can we prioritize education and meaningful, equitable, employment that can support essential needs like child and elder care? Surely all of these things are of far greater importance to us, no matter our station in life, than developing, testing, and maintaining the ability to deliver nuclear weapons thousands of miles away and decades into the future.

Is our greatest gift to future generations the ability to launch a nuclear attack 50 years from now when our children will have grandchildren of their own? Those children will face urgent needs and inhabit a world under tremendous pressure in ways we can only dread in our worst nightmares today. If we want to spare them the unacceptable risk of nuclear annihilation, the time to do so is rapidly running out.

The UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which prohibits the development, testing, production, possession, stockpiling, and threat to use nuclear weapons, entered into force on Jan. 22, 2021. Currently, 59 nations have signed and ratified the treaty. None of the nine nuclear weapons possessing states has yet to adopt the treaty.

Jon Letman is a Hawaii-based independent journalist covering people, politics, and the environment in the Asia-Pacific region.

Jon Letman

Jon Letman is a Hawaii-based independent journalist covering people, politics, and the environment in the Asia-Pacific region.

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