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Aging ICBMs must be replaced, not refurbished, STRATCOM chief says

Airmen from the 90th Maintenance Group are responsible for maintaining and repairing ICBMs on alert status Dec. 18, 2019, within the F.E. Warren missile complex. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Abbigayle Williams)
January 17, 2021

Amid reports that the Biden administration may scale back a planned 30-year, $1.2 trillion nuclear-modernization plan, the leader of U.S. Strategic Command wants everyone to know: America’s 400 ICBMs are so old that fixing them would cost more than the current effort to replace them.

“Let me be very clear: you can not life-extend Minuteman III, right? It is getting past the point where it is cost-effective to life-extend Minuteman III. We’re getting to the point where you can’t do it at all,” Adm. Charles Richard, the head of U.S. Strategic Command or STRATCOM, told reporters Tuesday.

Without naming anyone, he took a swift swipe at think tank studies suggesting otherwise. You don’t know how old and out-of-date these are until you are looking them in the circuit board, Richard argued.

“I don’t understand frankly how someone in a think tank who doesn’t have their hands on the missile, looking at the parts, the cables, all of the pieces inside that. I was out at Hill Air Force Base looking at this. That thing is so old that in some cases the drawings don’t exist anymore. Or where we do have drawings they’re six generations behind the industry standard. There’s not only not anybody working that can understand them, they’re not alive anymore,” he said.

The 400 U.S. Minuteman III ICBMs are distributed across silos in the United States, a number in keeping with the New START Treaty. “The Air Force has modernized the Minuteman missiles, replacing and upgrading their rocket motors, guidance systems, and other components, so that they can remain in the force through 2030. It has initiated a program to replace these with a new Ground-based Strategic Deterrent beginning around 2029,” notes a Congressional Research Service report from December.

ICBMs have become the most controversial leg of the U.S. nuclear triad. In addition to being costly they’re only useful in an initial strike, launched, at the latest, seven minutes after inbound missiles have been detected. Bombers and sub-launched missiles are much harder to target and give the President a lot more time to make a possibly humanity-exterminating decision. Former Defense Secretary William Perry has suggested the U.S. get rid of them.

Kingston Reif, director for disarmament and threat reduction policy at the Arms Control Association, echoed that view. “ICBMs are the least valuable and least stabilizing leg of the nuclear triad and what we invest to retain them should reflect that,” Reif said. He said Richard’s claim that refurbishing the current Minuteman III missiles would cost more than the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent replacement “is based on comparing the two options over 50+ years and assuming the need for 400 deployed ICBMs over that time period. But continuing to rely on a smaller number of Minuteman III missiles for a shorter period of time is possible and at significantly less cost than GBSD. Amid likely flat (at best) defense budgets in the near term and the resource demands of higher priority national and health security needs, over investing in an unnecessary new ICBM would be a major misstep.”

On Tuesday, Richard repeated his push for ICBMs to remain in the U.S. arsenal. “This nation has never before had to face the prospect of two, peer, nuclear-capable adversaries who have to be deterred differently and actions to deter one have an impact on the other. This is way more complicated than it used to be.”

Newer missiles would also be less vulnerable to hacking, a growing concern as the U.S. government grapples with a supply chain hack from the Russian government that has affected multiple agencies. “One of the biggest pieces is in its cyber resilience… We will replace a 60-year-old, basically a circuit switch system with a modern cyber defendable up-to-current standards command and control system. Just to pace the cyber threat alone, GBSD is a necessary step forward.”

Richard specified that STRATCOM has not been affected by the SolarWinds debacle, saying that there were no indicators of compromise, which, in some ways, undercuts his own point. U.S. nuclear command and control systems, old tho they are, have withstood cyberthreats precisely because they aren’t linked to other IT elements in the military. In 2017, the Air Force Research Board undertook a study of the ramifications of networked ICBMs but did not make the results publicly available.

Richardson was also asked on the potential fate of the New START treaty, which expires in February, shortly after the Biden team comes into power. Biden’s team has said that they will renew it. Richardson said that he has met with members of Biden’s team. The meetings, he said, “have gone well.”

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