It's Time to Retire the ICBM

An interview with Tom Collina

In January 2016, in an interview published by the Arms Control Association, William J. Perry, the US Secretary of Defense in the mid 90's, was asked how he would propose to phase out the land-based intercontinental ballistic missile – known as the ICBM. His answer was straightforward: "I simply would not recapitalize it."

Unfortunately, just six months later, the US Air Force has kicked off a program to replace these ICBMs, the Minuteman III missiles, as part of a dangerous, bloated and unnecessary $1 trillion effort to rebuild the US nuclear arsenal. We sat down with Ploughshares Fund Policy Director Tom Collina to tell us more about why this is a mistake and how it can be corrected:

PF: Why should we get rid of the ICBMs before nuclear submarines and bombers?

TC: All nuclear weapons have the potential to cause unparalleled destruction, but ICBMs are particularly dangerous because they are kept on ‘high-alert’ – meaning they can be launched in a matter of minutes—and they are vulnerable to Russian attack since they are in fixed, well-known locations. In the highly unlikely scenario of a Russian attack, there would be tremendous pressure on the president to launch ICBMs before any incoming missiles actually landed on US soil, at which point most ICBMs would be destroyed.

The risks that ICBMs on high-alert present far outweigh any realistic benefit, and could conceivably lead to an accidental nuclear war based on a false alarm. This is not fantasy or science fiction; there have been a number of such close calls in the past.

Nuclear-armed submarines at sea are not vulnerable and thus do not need to be launched on warning of an attack. Bombers are not on alert.

PF: But isn’t the ICBM critical to our deterrence capability? Getting rid of them seems very risky, leaving us exposed to Russia, North Korea and other potential aggressors.

Getting rid of our 450 ICBMs does not leave the US exposed to attack by Russia, North Korea or any other nuclear-armed state. On the contrary, ICBMs put us in more danger because they are on high alert and could accidentally ignite a nuclear war. Besides, we have enough nukes on subs – about 1,000 of them – to deter any potential attacker. And we should encourage Russia, which has 300 ICBMs, to reduce its arsenal too.

In fact, while cutting ICBMs from the nuclear arsenal is mainly about preventing accidental war and saving money, it could also help prevent a new nuclear arms race with Russia. Moscow sees our ICBMs as very threatening. The US’s dangerous and expensive plan to build a new generation of nuclear weapons – including a new ICBM – is increasing pressure on Moscow to rebuild its own forces.

PF: What about the economic repercussions of eliminating ICBMs — in Montana for example? What can be done about that?

TC: Eliminating ICBMs from the nuclear arsenal wouldn’t happen overnight. They would be phased out over 10 years – a process that should go hand-in-hand with creating new jobs dedicated to protecting Americans from 21st century threats like cyber attacks, not a Cold War that ended 25 years ago.

PF: How can we realistically get to a place where we can begin dismantling ICBMs in the US? What needs to happen? What are the first steps?

TC: The first step is to cancel the plans for new ICBMs. Then we phase out the old ones. Once they reach the end of their shelf life they would be retired and dismantled.

PF: How much taxpayer money would we save if we got rid of our ICBMs?

TC: It would cost at least $60 billion to build new ICBMs. That money could be used for 21st century defense or domestic needs that Americans face today.

PF: What would happen if an ICBM were used on a populated area?

TC: The human devastation would be astronomical if ICBMs were ever used on a densely populated area: A 100-kiloton bomb dropped on Washington, DC would destroy the downtown area, killing over 200,000 people instantly. A one-megaton bomb would wipe out the entire area inside the Beltway, killing over 500,000. A 100-kiloton bomb dropped on New York City would wipe out lower Manhattan and kill over 500,000. US ICBMs are armed with 300-kiloton warheads.

PF: What other actions can our government take to reduce nuclear threats?

TC: In President Obama’s now famous Prague speech, he said his administration would "take concrete steps towards a world without nuclear weapons,” that it would “put an end to Cold War thinking” and that it would “reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy."

Unfortunately, despite the historic Iran Deal and the New START Treaty with Russia, Obama hasn’t done nearly enough to cut back on nuclear weapons. But there is still time for the President to do more to fulfill the sane nuclear vision he laid out over seven years ago.

In the final months of his presidency, Ploughshares Fund and its grantees are doubling down to do all we can to ensure that he does. For example, he still has time to cancel the new nuclear cruise missile – another wasteful and redundant weapon – or declare a no ‘first-use’ policy, which would defuse tensions with other nuclear-armed states. Together, we’re giving voice to the urgency of slowing down plans to build a new generation of nuclear weapons. The next several months are critical, and we can use all the support we can get.

PF: Thank you, Tom.

TC: Thank you.


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Photo: Peacekeeper, Minuteman I and Minuteman III ICBMs on display near F.E. Warren Air Force Base, Wyo., Gate 1 Feb. 11, 2011. (US Air Force photo by R.J. Oriez)

Here's why the #ICBM should be permanently retired.

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