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U.S. Bill Would Deny Funds to Close Underground Missile Silos

By Rachel Oswald

Global Security Newswire

U.S. airmen perform an electrical check on a Minuteman 3 intercontinental ballistic missile in its silo in 1980 at the Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri. Draft spending legislation would forbid the military from beginning to shut down any of the roughly 450 ICBM silos that are scattered across Montana, North Dakota and Wyoming. U.S. airmen perform an electrical check on a Minuteman 3 intercontinental ballistic missile in its silo in 1980 at the Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri. Draft spending legislation would forbid the military from beginning to shut down any of the roughly 450 ICBM silos that are scattered across Montana, North Dakota and Wyoming. (U.S. Air Force photo)

The draft House-Senate spending bill that Congress is close to approving would deny the Pentagon any monies to begin eliminating underground ICBM silos.

The omnibus fiscal 2014 spending legislation forbids the Defense Department from using any appropriated funds "to conduct any environmental impact analysis related to Minuteman 3 silos that contain a missile," reads the draft bill text. The House passed the appropriations bill by a wide margin on Wednesday and the Senate was expected to start debate soon on the measure.

The U.S. Air Force Global Strike Command as of the beginning of September was maintaining 448 silo-based ICBMs spread out evenly across three sites in Montana, North Dakota and Wyoming.

Under the New START accord with Russia, the United States is required by 2018 to bring the total number of heavy bombers, ICBMs and submarine-launched ballistic missiles it deploys down to 700, with an additional 100 delivery vehicles permitted in reserve.

Lawmakers from the states that host the ICBMs have argued for the continued retention of the missiles and their silos. U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee member John Hoeven (R-N.D.) in a Tuesday press release defended keeping all of the silos functional -- regardless of whether they continue to house an ICBM -- on the grounds that doing so might confuse any potential enemies about exactly where the United States deploys its missiles.

The Fiscal 2014 Defense Authorization Act included a "sense of the Congress" that the Pentagon should preserve all silos that currently house a Minuteman 3 missile in at least "warm status," so that they could be returned to full operational capability, if need be.

It likely will be some years before the Pentagon begins making serious reductions to its silo-based missiles, according to Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists. In an interview last week, he said the military will first begin eliminating Trident launch tubes from its Ohio-class ballistic submarine fleet. Next, it likely would start removing the nuclear capability from some of its heavy bombers.

Reductions to the number of U.S. deployed ICBMs will probably come last under the New START accord, because "that's a big contentious political issue," according to Kristensen. "All of the senators that have them in their states don’t want anyone to do anything about them."

At the same time as Hoeven and others defend the ICBM force as a critical component of U.S. nuclear deterrence, the Air Force officer corps with launch control of the missiles has been enmeshed recently in repeated scandals. The revelations include allegations of widespread cheating on a proficiency test, investigations into drug possession, and reports of violations of security policies designed to protect access to ICBM-firing keys.

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GSN ceased publication on July 31, 2014. Its articles and daily issues will remain archived and available on NTI’s website.

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