As the new administration reassesses U.S. nuclear policy, it will be forced to make decisions about the future of the country’s ground-based, nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) arsenal. Many advocates of maintaining the nuclear status quo have argued that it is essential to completely replace America’s aging Minuteman ICBMs with a new set of missiles, commonly referred to as the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent. And yet, to justify this approach, advocates have falsely presented the decision as a binary choice. They claim the United States must either fully replace its ICBMs or jettison them entirely. There is, however, an alternative approach: Extend the lifespan of the Minuteman ICBMs and use arms control to reduce the deterrence requirements that ostensibly justify them.
We argue that extending the lifespan of the currently deployed Minuteman missiles is preferable to replacing them with a new arsenal of ICBMs. Silo-based ICBMs are ultimately ill-suited to counter the emergence of regional nuclear — and especially non-nuclear — threats to U.S. national security. Doubling down on ICBMs would in fact create additional risks to U.S. security. Rather than committing to ICBMs for the next five decades or more, the United States should begin to move its nuclear force structure away from silo ICBMs and look to reduce the comparable elements of Russia’s nuclear forces in tandem through arms control.
Adding to the Minuteman’s current life span is technically feasible, and would be a reasonable political compromise between Democrats and Republicans as both parties seek to support U.S. nuclear modernization and additional arms limitations on Russia (and China). Finally, U.S. negotiators seeking to shape the development of Russia’s strategic forces by limiting the deployment of large, multi-warhead silo ICBMs will be better served by trading away currently deployed Minutemen missiles instead of waiting for new missiles to be deployed in ten years.
Don’t Double Down on the Past
The first question is whether ICBMs are still the best weapons to address the strategic challenges America faces today. There is little reason to think they are.