New report questions the necessity of ICBM silos in Montana, Wyoming and North Dakota

Researchers question whether America can afford to spend money on new system

By: - July 28, 2021 5:15 pm

An unarmed Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile accelerates toward a test range near Guam in 2015 after launching from Vandenberg Air Force Base. The ICBM was the second fired for testing and evaluation purposes in the course of a week, with both Malmstrom and F. E. Warren AFBs sending crews and randomly selected missiles to Vandenberg AFB to launch the missiles in conjunction with the 30th Space Wing and 576th Flight Test Squadron which oversee the launch facilities and operational tests, respectively. (U.S. Air Force photo by Joe Davila)

A massive recent report by the Federation of American Scientists calls into question whether ground-based nuclear missiles, like the ones siloed in Montana, are still necessary to the country’s safety.

The question of nuclear missiles is not new, but lead author Matt Korda, a research associate at the Nuclear Information Project of the federation, said the issue needs revisiting since the war system that was created at the beginning of the Cold War has outlived the Soviet Union, and the world’s political system has rapidly changed.

Korda explained that new security threats have presented themselves, which means that America’s defenses must adapt. For example, terrorism from small groups instead of threats from countries are a reality that was unlikely during the height of the Soviet-America conflict. Also, economic inequality and social unrest within the country have also changed the conversation. Furthermore, global warming and the effects of climate change and the new threat of pandemics mean that America must re-think its priorities.

The report, “Siloed Thinking: A Closer Look at the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent,” is a 120-page comprehensive study of the political theory behind the ground-based system, which mainly spans across three states, Montana, North Dakota and Wyoming. These ground-based, stationary missiles make up one-third of the nuclear arsenal of America, often referred to as the “triad,” which also includes a fleet of submarines with nuclear capabilities as well as bombers in the Air Force, which can be equipped with a nuclear payload.

The report also questions some of the long-held strategic thinking behind the ground-based missiles, which are kept in an “alert” position at all times. This means the missiles are ready for launch because of the narrow window of time that would be needed to make a decision on whether to use them. Scientists and military strategists warn that because the ground-based nuclear missiles’ locations are known to potential enemies, they would have to be launched quickly in order not to be targeted and hit by a foreign power, effectively rendering them useless during a nuclear war.

Scientists have estimated that the amount of time to make a decision to use the missiles, called intercontinental ballistic missiles, would be about 10 minutes. That would mean an American president would have just a fraction of an hour to verify a threat and then respond, with the potential of hundreds of millions of lives in the balance.

Korda’s research questions whether the assumptions – like trying to make a snap-judgment decision – isn’t more of a liability than a strength.

“There’s a bias in this system toward launching them really quickly,” Korda said.

Moreover, because anyone looking to launch an attack on America wouldn’t necessarily know the location of bombers or submarines, it would make the stationary missiles in places like Montana a target.

“It would invite a devastating attack,” Korda said.

In other words, in the event of a nuclear attack, Montana, Wyoming and North Dakota may be the first places to be wiped off the map.

He said part of the report’s purpose was to dive into the theories that have become a sort of gospel in the defense world – that America’s enemies would be forced to attack the ground-based silos first before targeting larger population centers like Washington, D.C., Los Angeles or New York City.

He said with countries like China and North Korea developing nuclear missiles with quick flight times, the idea that they would target a place like Montana or Wyoming before more populated West Coast targets isn’t logical.

“We have always assumed that ground-based missiles would deter an attack, but there’s no evidence that would happen,” Korda said.

Instead, Korda argues in the report, the entire system and the next generation of missiles, estimated at a lifetime cost of more than $260 billion, is based on the idea that an enemy would have to target the ground-based system first.

Moreover, because of the quick launch decisions, the ability to recall the nuclear missiles would be nearly impossible, raising the chances that a false alarm could trigger an accidental nuclear war.

Korda’s study also calls into question whether as many nuclear warheads are necessary. For example, China currently has around 300, with plans not to exceed 600. Its current stockpile of nukes is less than 10 percent of the United States’ inventory. Korda said that if a threat like China only needs 600, then that would seem to indicate America may not need as many to be safe.

“The U.S. nuclear posture and policy kind of presumes that escalation (of a nuclear attack) can be controlled after they go off, but I don’t think that’s the case,” Korda said.

He pointed out that even the conservative-leaning RAND Corporation has stated that America’s nuclear arsenal is two to three times as much as the country likely needs.

The new study doesn’t just call into question the military strategy and history of the ground-based nuclear missiles, it also links it to an economic question: Whether America can afford to update and continue the program with emerging threats.

“Is the money better spent in missiles or would it be better to put it toward climate change or even disinformation?” said research assistant Tricia White.

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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.