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Faith as Small as a Titan: Relying on ICBMs in a Post-Cold War World 

Historical lessons could help us rethink an outdated nuclear policy.

Words: Eliana Johns
Pictures: Derek Livingston
Date:

“It was moments of absolute boredom interrupted by moments of stark terror,” recalled United States Air Force (USAF) veteran James Reynolds of his time as a missile combat crew member for the now-retired Titan II intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) during the Cold War.  

One of these terrifying moments happened to be a notorious “Broken Arrow” — a nuclear weapons-related accident resulting in launching, firing, detonating, theft, or loss. In 1980, Reynolds was the missileer who took the 374-7 Titan II missile off alert before it exploded in what was later coined the Damascus accident. He is also my grandfather. 

At a time when the risk of nuclear weapons use may be as high as it was for my grandfather during the Cold War, strategies for mitigating nuclear threats have been slow to evolve. Meanwhile, in early 2024, the USAF announced a 37% cost overrun and a two-year delay for the next generation of ICBMs, driving the Pentagon to restructure the project and justify the cost growth to avoid program termination. The current projected cost of the ICBM program and its new warheads through 2075 is $315 billion.   

Remembering the experiences of people like my grandfather illuminates the need to reevaluate the role of ICBMs and reconsider the costs of modernization at this pivotal time before the United States commits to an expensive and risky policy for the foreseeable future. 

Preparing for the Worst-Case Scenario 

Like many who joined the military during the 1960s, Reynolds enlisted in the Air Force to avoid being drafted into the Vietnam War. After five years of service marked by a year-long deployment to Vietnam, he considered leaving the service. Yet, faced with the reality of poor benefits and retirement options in the alternative jobs he saw available to him, Reynolds decided to attend Officer Training School and remain in the Air Force. 

A newly commissioned officer, Second Lieutenant Reynolds was assigned to US Air Force Strategic Air Command and stationed at McConnell Air Force Base in Kansas for two years as a deputy missile combat crew commander with the 8th Air Force. As a Titan II missile crew member, Reynolds was responsible for monitoring communications equipment in the launch complex and reacting to command and control messages, which could include taking required emergency war order actions for a Titan II missile launch. He would later transfer to a Titan II command post position in Little Rock, Arkansas, where the Damascus accident occurred. 

Actively deployed by the USAF from 1963 to 1987, the liquid-fueled Titan II ICBMs served as a survivable, retaliatory weapon that could reach military targets and cities in the Soviet Union and China. Each missile was equipped to deliver a nine-megaton nuclear warhead — a yield almost 600 times that of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima — and kept on alert in underground silos, which would reduce the launch time of the missile to just under one minute. 

The Titan II system included 54 launch complexes in three states — Arkansas, Kansas, and Arizona — where the ICBMs were at all times “babysat” underground by four airmen: two officers and two enlisted. These four men constituted the missile crew, who operated under strict security protocols. The two officers even carried pistols at their side while on duty.

My grandfather explained that many airmen and their superiors were told that the United States would never use a nuclear weapon first (although a no-first-use policy has never actually been included in US nuclear doctrine). Thus, the ginormous Titan IIs were designed to survive a first strike by launching from their silos before the incoming warheads arrived to destroy them. As nuclear forces, the Titan IIs were a target for enemy nuclear forces — if the launch crews were ever called upon, they knew it meant a nuclear attack was imminent. 

Except no one knew what would happen in that worst-case scenario. The environment outside of the silo launch center, which was designed to function as a bunker, would likely be uninhabitable, and the missileers were told to assume that communication would be unreliable. The missile crews were taught to be prepared if deterrence failed, but they never knew what would happen next. 

“I never liked the idea of launching a missile,” Reynolds said. “If you did, you could kiss your family goodbye right then and there. And there was no plan for afterward. Some crews had a rendezvous point after there was no communication, but we never had that. It was ‘turn the keys and good luck.’”

Not only did the threat of annihilation hang over the heads of the missileers every day, but so did the potential for fatal accidents.

“Broken Arrows” 

The Titan II was a relatively dangerous missile to work with — risks included fires, falls, poor ventilation, leaks, radiation exposure, and potential accidents from the close proximity of hypergolic fuels stored permanently on the missiles. In the years the Titan II was operational, there were several accidents and Broken Arrows, the worst of which led to the death of 53 people.

Reynold’s Broken Arrow encounter happened on Sept. 18, 1980, when he took the 330,000-pound liquid-fueled ICBM equipped with a nine-megaton W-53 nuclear warhead off alert so missileers could perform routine maintenance. Just hours after he had driven home that night, a mishap that punctured the fuel tank caused a massive explosion that blew the 750-ton silo hatch into the air, where it landed 600 feet away from the launch complex. The nuclear warhead was also found about 100 feet from the entry gate. A subsequent investigation discovered that its safety features had fortunately prevented the nine-megaton warhead from detonating. David Livingston, an airman who was exiting the silo after conducting an inspection, died of his injuries from the explosion, and 21 other USAF personnel were injured.

While any nuclear weapons system has plenty of safeguards built in, something could always go wrong. The Titan II-related accidents that occurred in Arkansas over the years each cost up to $50 million to clean up, and the Damascus accident alone would have cost over $225 million — the Air Force decided to close the facility instead. Due in part to the expensive upkeep, the US began dismantling the Titan IIs a few years after the Damascus accident.

The Role of ICBMs Today

My grandfather proudly recalls participating in a mission he believed would save the lives of millions of Americans, including his own family. He compared it to the necessity of driving a car — there are always risks involved, but the risks are worth taking and, at times, an unavoidable part of life. 

After hearing his story for the first time, I was fascinated by my grandfather’s proximity to the powerful Titan IIs and his conviction about his duty to man a missile that could cause so much destruction. He was prepared to answer the command to launch an ICBM equipped with a nine-megaton warhead and, at one point, lived with his family just miles from where the Damascus accident occurred.

Today, missileers just like my grandfather still “babysit” multi-million-dollar Minuteman III ICBMs in Montana, North Dakota, Wyoming, and Nebraska that will hopefully never be used. The 400 deployed missiles are spread across 450 silos, each carrying one warhead ranging from 300 to 355 kilotons, a dramatic decrease in yield compared to the warheads atop the retired Titan IIs — but still more than 20 times more powerful than the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. 

The current number and alert status of deployed US ICBMs were enshrined in law after the Obama administration continued the trend of prior administrations in reducing the number of deployed nuclear weapons in part through agreements such as the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) with Russia. Worried about the impact that the New START limits would have on its districts, the “Senate ICBM Coalition” — comprised of Senators from Wyoming, Montana, North Dakota, and Utah — helped pass a provision in the FY2017 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that prohibited the Pentagon from lowering the quantity and alert level of the ICBM force below 400.

Congress has included this provision in the NDAA every year since. Unfortunately, this simplistic codification solidifies an inflexible ICBM posture that conflicts with US nuclear employment strategy, which “rejects launch-on-warning” — a strategy of launching a nuclear strike immediately in response to an alert of an imminent enemy nuclear attack.

Continued Costly Faith in ICBMs

Within this context, the United States is embarking on a decades-long project to modernize its entire nuclear triad (warheads, missiles, command and control systems, and more). This includes completely replacing the aging Minuteman IIIs with the new Sentinel system, even though the Air Force could technically life-extend the Minuteman missiles (and likely will need to due to scheduling delays with the Sentinel) for another several decades. The Sentinel modernization effort is estimated to cost nearly $130 billion and has already incurred significant budget and schedule overruns that incited a critical breach of the Nunn-McCurdy Act, requiring the USAF to notify Congress of the 37% cost overrun.

However, there is not a coherent security rationale for preserving ICBMs in a post-Cold War era. Resulting from the fear of a “bolt-from-the-blue” Soviet nuclear strike and over-prioritized as a result of competing military budgets, ICBM silos are designed to provide the United States with the ability to carry out preemptive strikes with the intention of limiting an enemy’s capacity to inflict retaliatory damage upon the United States. Large numbers of dispersed ICBMs, according to some ICBM advocates, also serve as a “nuclear sponge” by forcing an adversary to expend large numbers of warheads to defeat them — setting up the people living near the ICBMs as sacrifices in case deterrence fails. 400 siloed ICBMs might complicate adversary targeting to an extent, but only if the adversary has 400-800 deployed ICBM warheads to spare in the first place.

It seems somewhat perverse to argue that the United States must field hundreds of ICBMs to incite adversaries to shower the Midwest with hundreds of additional nuclear warheads, given that even a full-scale first strike against them would not prevent a devastating response from the hundreds of warheads onboard US ballistic missile submarines. 

There is not a coherent security rationale for preserving ICBMs in a post-Cold War era.

Thomas Schelling acknowledged this reality in his 1987 piece “Abolition of Ballistic Missiles” and suggested that dismantling ICBMs potentially would reduce enemy targeting in the United States: “The Soviets may be able to preempt a large part of the land-based missile force; what they cannot do is preempt massive retaliation … If we unilaterally dismantled our land-based missiles, we would instantly deprive a large part of the Soviet land-based missile force for its raison d’être … So if we cannot dismantle their land-based missiles by negotiation, we may gain a lot by dismantling their targets instead.” 

Unfortunately, although US nuclear strategy does not depend on the ability to launch under attack, the design of the ICBM force may nonetheless incentivize the US President to authorize a launch quickly in a crisis so as to not “lose” the weapons. While many will argue that the value of ICBMs lies in their capability to be launched quickly, the US Ohio-class nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines can also launch their Trident ballistic missiles just as quickly and, in some cases, from a location that allows them to reach their target faster than ICBMs. Observing the United States’ nuclear and warfighting capabilities holistically reveals that the US nuclear-capable bombers and submarine fleet together are more than sufficiently equipped to deter multiple adversaries.

This is especially important since the US government and modern scholarship consider a “bolt-from-the-blue” attack to be highly improbable today. Even a Russian breakout from the New START limits to deploy significantly more warheads would not give it a military advantage or prevent the United States from being able to launch a devastating retaliatory strike. More Chinese nuclear warheads also don’t change this.

Evolving Strategies for Evolving Challenges 

Because targeting an ICBM silo makes no sense if the missile has been launched, ICBM silos seem to fuel a “use it or lose it” mindset, incentivizing the President to launch them before they can be destroyed. Their quick-launch capability makes them tempting tools for planning preemptive nuclear strikes against an adversary to limit their capability to inflict damage.  This ultimately raises the likelihood of nuclear use and comes with risks and costs that we do not have to accept. Regrettably, outdated nuclear strategy and fiscally motivated planning of US nuclear posture are inhibiting leaders and scholars from considering whether certain deterrence requirements could be satisfied by existing systems or whether those requirements are even necessary to address modern deterrence challenges. 

The world is entering a time where the risk of nuclear weapons use is as high as it was for my grandfather during the Cold War. However, the shape of those threats has changed drastically while the strategies for managing those risks have not evolved apace. Remembering and retelling some of the realities of the Cold War period — from nuclear attack drills in school to armed airmen living in underground bunkers next to ICBMs armed with nine-megaton warheads — serves as a reminder of how arms racing pushed us nearly to the brink once before and has the potential to do so again. At a time when the Pentagon is reexamining the costs of new ICBM infrastructure, this context illuminates the need to reconsider the drivers behind old systems and reconsider whether the costs of a new modernization program are really worth the benefits. 

Eliana Johns

Eliana Johns is a Research Associate for the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists, where she co-authors the Nuclear Notebook – an authoritative estimate of global nuclear forces and trends. Johns is also an upcoming master’s student at Georgetown University’s Center for Security Studies, where she will concentrate on the intersection between technology and security. Previously, Johns worked as a Project Associate for DPRK Counterproliferation at CRDF Global, focusing on WMD nonproliferation initiatives to curb North Korea’s ability to gain revenue to build its weapons programs. Johns completed the Critical Language Scholarship program for Korean through the U.S. Department of State and graduated with her bachelor’s in Political Science and minors in Music and Korean from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC).

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