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U.S. Sea-Based Missiles Seen as "Core" Nukes, Maybe at ICBM Expense

By Elaine M. Grossman

Global Security Newswire

(Oct. 1) -The Ohio-class submarineUSS Michigan, shown before it was modified to carry conventional missiles rather than nuclear-armed ballistic missiles. Nuclear-armed submarines are likely to remain the "core" of the nation's strategic deterrent, one high-level U.S. Defense Department official said last month (U.S. Navy photo). (Oct. 1) -The Ohio-class submarineUSS Michigan, shown before it was modified to carry conventional missiles rather than nuclear-armed ballistic missiles. Nuclear-armed submarines are likely to remain the "core" of the nation's strategic deterrent, one high-level U.S. Defense Department official said last month (U.S. Navy photo).

WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Navy's nuclear-armed missiles are likely to remain the "core" of the nation's deterrent force when the results of a major review are unveiled at year's end, a senior Defense Department official said in an interview (see GSN, Sept. 22).

Nuclear-capable submarines "are and have been the centerpiece, the core, of our deterrent," said the official, who declined to be named while discussing not-yet-final results of the Pentagon's Nuclear Posture Review. "It's likely that they'll remain that. Whatever we do with nuclear weapons, we ought to get that right."

The remarks, made late last month, appeared to suggest that other forces in the U.S. nuclear arsenal -- bomber aircraft or land-based missiles -- might stand at greater risk of cutbacks. This week, signs are emerging that the Air Force's ICBMs, in particular, could be slashed by as much as one-third.

U.S. Strategic Command -- the military organization responsible for nuclear combat operations -- is contemplating a recommendation to cut 150 missiles from the 450-strong Minuteman 3 ICBM force, Global Security Newswire has learned. However, it remains unclear whether such a reduction will find its way into a posture review recommendation, or if instead it will be modified or never even see the light of day, according to defense sources.

On Monday, key senators from states housing ICBMs and nuclear command bases, in a letter to Defense Secretary Robert Gates, demanded that the land-based force remain untouched.

The Nuclear Posture Review, a broad assessment of nuclear strategy, forces and readiness, is set for delivery to Congress by year's end. It aims to include "concrete steps toward a world without nuclear weapons," along with a plan to maintain "a safe, secure, effective and reliable nuclear deterrent," according to the Pentagon.

The Navy has 288 Trident D-5 missiles operationally deployed aboard 14 Ohio-class submarines, though two vessels are considered to be in overhaul at any given time, according to a recent assessment by nuclear arms experts Robert Norris and Hans Kristensen. Approximately 1,152 nuclear weapons are deployed on the sea-launched ballistic missiles, with each Trident D-5 believed to carry an average of four warheads, according to the analysts.

Completing the nuclear triad is an air leg. The Air Force maintains 60 bombers available day-to-day for nuclear or conventional missions. Each bomber can be fitted with different configurations of cruise missiles and bombs, drawing from a stockpile of 500 air-deliverable strategic nuclear weapons, according to Norris and Kristensen.

In all, the United States maintains roughly 2,200 operationally deployed strategic nuclear weapons, under the terms of the 2002 Moscow Treaty. Washington and Moscow are engaged in talks aimed at achieving a follow-on agreement to the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, in which each side would reduce its arsenal to 1,500 to 1,675 warheads, with strategic delivery platforms limited to between 500 and 1,100 vehicles.

The Defense Department has not yet said which delivery vehicles or warheads would be cut to meet these lower ceilings.

U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev have said that once the initial START follow-on talks have produced an agreement, they also would be interested in exploring deeper cuts that put the former Cold War rivals on a path toward zero nuclear weapons.

In the meantime, the Pentagon is grappling with how to fulfill Obama's dual objectives of reducing the role of nuclear weapons while ensuring that the remaining arsenal is viable.

Reassuring 'Centerpiece' or Dangerous Risk?

The senior defense official suggested that the multiple-warhead, submarine-based missiles should be preserved because they are a fairly benign facet of the nuclear force. They are relatively invulnerable to an enemy strike, minimizing the risk that, in a crisis, Washington would launch the missiles before they could be destroyed, according to this perspective.

"On a day-to-day basis, I don't think [Russian leaders are] very concerned and I don't think we're very concerned about them, and I think both sides are right," the official said.

Not everyone sees it that way.

"The Tridents today are at the front line of our offensive strike plans," Kristensen, director of the Federation of American Scientists' Nuclear Information Project, said at an Aug. 26 press briefing. "They're hard to verify, hard to find [at sea and] they can sneak up on you."

Speaking at the same event, FAS Acting President Ivan Oelrich noted that nuclear-armed submarines were viewed during the Cold War as "the perfect stabilizing weapon," thanks to their virtual immunity from a use-or-lose impulse. They have continued to enjoy "really great public relations" over the years, as the Navy has upgraded them with new capabilities, he said.

In the process, though, they have taken on a more destabilizing role, he argued.

"The submarines got bigger, the missiles got bigger [and] now we can put 475-kiloton-yield warheads on the D-5," Oelrich said. "Now the missiles on submarines are just as accurate as they are from ICBMs, from land-based missiles."

From underwater launch positions just off an adversary's shoreline, a Trident submarine could unleash a salvo of missiles in "depressed trajectories," allowing them to reach targets in just 12 to 15 minutes, he said. "We can also move the submarines around to exploit gaps in Russian early warning radar systems.

"And so the submarines, if you're on the other side [during a crisis], look like particularly threatening first-strike weapons," Oelrich said.

Another aspect of the Trident-carrying submarines that could stoke tensions with potential nuclear adversaries is their capacity for multiple warheads on each missile, called "MIRVs," Kristensen noted this week.

"If you have MIRV, you can do more with it" in terms of hitting several targets with a single shot, he said. "We have to make sure we're not in a posture where the overwhelming majority of our missiles are [lurking] out there somewhere, [at a time when] we want our potential adversaries to calm down."

Kristensen added: "This is about what signals you send and what posture you nudge your adversary into."

Seeking Stability as Force Shrinks

The senior defense official rejected the criticism of submarine-based Trident missiles, noting that Russia's strategic nuclear force is dominated by missiles fitted with multiple warheads.

"If they were extremely concerned about this, they would probably de-MIRV more, they would be more in single-warhead systems, and they would probably have more [platforms in] their growing mobile missile force, [and] they would have more of the mobiles out in the field and less in garrison," the official said.

The Nuclear Posture Review is expected to recommend ways in which crisis stability could be maintained or enhanced, the official said.

"The idea that strategic stability still matters is likely to be a principle of the NPR," the senior official told GSN. "But my point is, if you don't like to go in SSBNs [nuclear-armed submarines] and if you're not going to bring your bombers off alert, then would you rather put [warheads] on ICBMs? The answer's 'probably not.'"

Along with Norris -- a senior research associate at the Natural Resources Defense Council -- Kristensen and Oelrich in April advocated that Washington negotiate radical force reductions and eliminate submarine-based missiles from the remaining arsenal (see GSN, April 10).

This "minimal deterrence" force would be used only if the United States or its allies were attacked with nuclear weapons, and the changes would represent a substantial step toward a world free of atomic arms, according to a report prepared by the three analysts.

Under the trio's proposal, the Pentagon would cut its nuclear-armed submarine fleet to eight boats by 2020 and, five years later, eliminate the vessels altogether. At that time, a U.S. force comprising 200 ICBMs and fewer than 300 weapons on bombers would be all that remained, according to the analysts' concept.

"We're trying to take the [destabilizing] dynamic out of nuclear planning," Kristensen said at last month's event. "We're advocating phasing [submarine-based nuclear weapons] out and focusing our posture on a land-based posture."

Still, as an interim step toward a smaller overall nuclear force, the report advises reductions to 300 ICBMs by 2015 -- the exact figure being bandied about this week as the possible size of the land-based missile force under the Nuclear Posture Review.

The idea of reducing U.S. atomic arms to a small fraction of their Cold War numbers is not new.

"One thousand nuclear weapons would be sufficient to undertake any sort of attack that could reasonably be considered limited, while still maintaining a reserve force of at least several hundred nuclear warheads," according to a 1989 Harvard doctoral dissertation by James Miller, who now oversees the Nuclear Posture Review as principal deputy defense undersecretary for policy.

At the time he wrote the 313-page thesis, "Approaching Zero: An Evaluation of Radical Reductions in Superpower Nuclear Arsenals," the Cold War had not yet ended and the United States and Soviet Union each maintained more than 10,000 deployed strategic nuclear arms.

Like today's analysts, Miller emphasized that it would be important to carefully craft the composition of a smaller nuclear force so that the risks of an atomic blast would be minimized in the context of a crisis. Otherwise, a "use-it-or-lose-it" phenomenon could be triggered, leading to disastrous consequences.

"It would be critical under radical reductions that the residual forces were highly survivable," Miller wrote, emphasizing that "a high degree of strategic stability (strong deterrence and crisis stability) could be maintained if superpower nuclear arsenals were reduced to 1,000 warheads."

Now that the Cold War is over, nuclear experts might debate some of the measures Miller proposed for maintaining crisis stability with a small force, such as keeping bombers and submarines at high states of alert and putting ICBM warheads onto mobile missiles. Absent the old NATO-Warsaw Pact standoff, some of these expensive schemes might be seen as unnecessary or even unhelpful in reducing tensions.

An ICBM Cut?

Traditional thinking about potentially massive U.S.-Russian nuclear exchanges suggested that ICBMs based in silos might be launched on warning during a crisis, particularly if it appeared the other side was about to pre-emptively attack the missiles as a way of limiting damage to its own forces, population or infrastructure.

However, some analysts say this dynamic is less likely to occur as force numbers come down.

In theory, Russia or China could attack Washington's dwindling land-based missile force and effectively disarm that leg of the triad, leaving the United States with much fewer warheads with which to retaliate, said one Pentagon contractor following the issue.

"But it would take two to three warheads to kill [an ICBM] in the middle of nowhere," this source said. "Where's the advantage there?"

Minuteman 3 ICBMs are housed at F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming; Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana; and Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota.

Senators from the chamber's "ICBM Coalition" this week insisted in their letter to Gates that the land-based force "is the most stabilizing in our nuclear arsenal. ... The 450-Minuteman ICBM force creates a widely dispersed single-warhead target that adds significant stability to a crisis."

The senators signaled they would challenge a potential Pentagon decision that silo-based ICBMs should be among the first sources of new nuclear arms reductions.

"We would strongly oppose a reduction below the current force structure of 450 missiles, divided into three wings of 150 missiles each," stated Senators Max Baucus and Jon Tester, both Montana Democrats. They were joined by nine other members of the chamber, representing six states with ICBM bases and nuclear-weapon headquarters facilities.

The bipartisan signatories -- five Democrats and six Republicans -- include some lawmakers, like Baucus and Senator Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), central to the Senate's ongoing health care reform debate. Defense sources expect that this issue might figure into the Obama administration's political calculus about how to proceed on nuclear reductions.

So might White House considerations related to ratification of the forthcoming U.S.-Russian arms reduction treaty, which would require a two-thirds majority vote in the Senate.

The White House must "ensure congressional support for ... ratification of this START follow-on," Kristensen said yesterday in a phone interview. "You don't want to do things that alienate more Congress people."

If cuts are taken to the ICBM force, one legislative strategy for Obama might be to propose that 50 missiles be eliminated from each of three wings, rather than dismantling an entire 150-missile wing at a single base.

"I'll be very surprised if that reduction is not one squadron from each of the three wings instead of cutting one wing," Kristensen said.

Why? "Congress," he said. "[For] everybody that has these systems in their state, it's just jobs, jobs, jobs."

Cost Factors

The ICBM coalition suggested that even this type of reduction might be unacceptable.

"While we may not oppose modifications or some reductions to our nuclear force, we are certain that the ICBM force as currently constituted provides an extraordinary benefit to our national security while delivering high value to the taxpayer," the senators said. "ICBMs cost less than $1 billion annually to maintain."

Yearly operations and support costs for the Trident submarine fleet and their nuclear-armed missiles could exceed that figure, but are believed to be cheaper on a per-warhead basis, according to some defense analysts.

The senior defense official said last month that budget trade-offs would figure into the Nuclear Posture Review.

"Cost is a consideration in this review and in any review of policies and programs," the official said.

Anticipated expenses could affect modernization plans for a future long-range strike platform to replace the bombers, a next-generation nuclear-armed submarine or plans for a new ICBM, the official added (see GSN, May 28 and April 24, 2008).

In particular, the official appeared to suggest that replacing the Minuteman 3 with a more modern missile might be fiscally problematic (see GSN, Aug. 7).

"If you look at what we're doing on Minuteman 3s -- just keep life-extending them into the future -- if cost were not a consideration [and] you could for-free have a missile that took its place, and raised fewer of the maintenance issues and other things than the Minuteman 3, then you would," the official said. "But it's a consideration."

NTI Analysis

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  • U.S. Nuclear Weapons Budget: An Overview

    Sept. 27, 2013

    A fact sheet on current and projected costs of maintaining the U.S. nuclear deterrent, produced by the Center for Nonproliferation Studies.