Nuclear scientist argues for refurbishing, not replacing Minuteman III missiles

Calls ground-based silos a ‘net deficit’

By: - April 5, 2021 12:43 pm

The locations of the 10th Missile Squadron, headquartered at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Great Falls, Montana (Wikimedia Commons license)

Frank von Hippel knows a thing or two about nuclear arms.

More than two dozen trips to Moscow during the Cold War and a lifetime of research as a nuclear scientist at an Ivy League university means that when he talks about nuclear arms, people listen. He was credited with being instrumental in the efforts to decrease the number of nuclear weapons in the waning days of the Soviet Union.

After the missile treaties were signed, von Hippel had thought his work in nuclear arms may be finishing. But now, nearly 40 years later, as more countries developed nuclear technology, he’s finding many of the old arguments, policies and battles are far from done.

“I myself thought that once the Cold War ended that it would end the threat of nuclear war,” von Hippel said. “We didn’t go to zero like I thought. We didn’t even get close. After the (arms reduction treaties between the U.S. and the Soviet Union) I thought, ‘It’s all over. What am I going to do next?’ But now we need a new group of physicists to get to the issue.

“There was a whole generation in the 1980s and 1990s that had a sophisticated Congress which understood these issues. Now, I worry that if there’s a prospect of contractors and jobs to be had in their state, they’ll line up.”

Von Hippel authored a new article, published in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, which argues that if the United States needs to keep its ground-based nuclear missiles, then it should refurbish and update the current Minutemen III rather than pay for an entire new system design.

The lifespan, von Hippel said, could be extended easily to 2060 at a lower cost. That’s important because von Hippel points out that the U.S. military budget is more than double that of Russia and China combined.

A new defense contract given to Northrop Grumman will spend about $13 billion in research and design of a new system that is estimated to cost the government $264 billion during the course of its life, which is pegged to the year 2080. The RAND Corporation calculated refurbishing 420 Minutemen III missiles at $20 billion to $40 billion.

He said that defense policy with the ground-based, siloed missiles is risky. Because they’re stationary — or in the ground — enemies who would strike with nuclear weapons know that and would target them. Therefore, the ground-based missiles have to be ready to launch quickly, and they are always in the “warning posture.” This, coupled with the risk of an accidental launch, means the ICBMs are more dangerous than warheads on the nuclear submarines, which can stand-by for longer periods of time, or bombers, which can be recalled in case of a false alarm.

Von Hippel details the launch sequence of a nuclear attack and determined that the United States president would have only about 10 minutes to decide whether to launch — a very small window with potentially cataclysmic consequences.

“You have 10 minutes to decide what could be the death of hundreds of millions of people,” von Hippel said.

In a Washington Post piece, former Secretary of Defense William Perry wrote, “ICMBs increase the risk that we will blunder into nuclear war by mistake.”

Von Hippel added to Perry’s argument in his writing.

“False alarms have happened multiple times, and in an era of cyberattacks on U.S. command-and-control systems, the danger has only grown,” von Hippel said. “Starting a nuclear war by mistake is the greatest existential risk to the United States today. The ICBMs are, at best, extra insurance that we do not need; at worst, they are a nuclear catastrophe waiting to happen.”

If looked at from a risk standpoint, von Hippel said the nuclear weapons may be “a net deficit.”

“By far, the most likely scenario for nuclear war would be accidental,” von Hippel said.


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Darrell Ehrlick
Darrell Ehrlick

Darrell Ehrlick is the editor-in-chief of the Daily Montanan, after leading his native state’s largest paper, The Billings Gazette. He is an award-winning journalist, author, historian and teacher, whose career has taken him to North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Utah, and Wyoming.