Does a Land-based ICBM Force Keep Us Safe from Nuclear Armageddon

Does a Land-based ICBM Force Keep Us Safe from Nuclear Armageddon August 28, 2022

The Union of Concerned Scientists Says it Doesn’t and should be Scrapped

A satirical image of a finger on the button that would send the order to launch a nuclear attack. The button says "Push."
One man should not have the authority to launch a nuclear war. (Image credit: Union of Concerned Scientists)

A virtual-reality simulation asks: Should I launch an ICBM (intercontinental ballistic missile) counterforce in response to a perceived Russian nuclear attack? The London Guardian Newspaper last December tells what it would be like for a president faced with this decision:

Our Early Warning System has detected what appears to be the launch of 299 Russian missiles aimed at our ICBM deterrent force in silos across the Western Plains. Someone from the Pentagon hands you a list of three options in order of increasing ferocity. You could be killing immediately anywhere from five million to 45 million Russian civilians. You have 15 minutes to decide. (Summarized)

People who have gone through this simulation (not including any presidents) say it is a life-altering experience. Some say the real-life version of this experience is an all-to-real possibility that should be rendered impossible. That is the argument that the Union of Concerned Scientists has made.

The ICBM portion of our nuclear deterrence triad

The Catholic Church has condemned even the possession of nuclear weapons. (See my last post.) Still nuclear deterrence is simply reality in today’s world. For over half a century the major nuclear powers, particularly the Soviet Union/Russia and the United States, have kept their fingers off the nuclear button. Each side fears the other’s ability to inflict unacceptable destruction in a counter attack.

The United States has long relied on a nuclear deterrence triad. One leg of the triad is a fleet of jets equipped with nuclear bombs. Stationed at bases around the world, these bombers, if placed on high alert, can be airborne within minutes. A second leg is nuclear missile-equipped submarines.

The problematic portion of the nuclear triad, as the UCS sees it, is our fleet of land-based ICBM missiles. The letters stand for “Intercontinental Ballistic Missile,” i.e., long range missiles that can span the globe. (Ballistic means they travel without their own propulsion, like a baseball. You can’t turn them around or redirect them.) These “Minuteman” missiles are buried in silos throughout our Western Plains.  As their name implies, they can launch within minutes of the first inkling of an attack. Unfortunately, an enemy attack can destroyed them within minutes if not launched. And, if launched, they cannot be called back!

Thus they are essentially different from the other two forms of our deterrence force. A bomber has a human pilot who can turn the plane around if the initial warning turns out to be a mistake. A submarine is in almost no danger from an enemy attack so it needn’t be in a hurry to launch its missiles.

The risk of a mistaken ICBM launch

What are the chances that the launch of one or more nuclear-armed ICBM’s could occur by mistake? The Union of Concerned Scientists and other organizations have recorded dozens of “close calls,” times when the world narrowly avoided the launch of nuclear missiles. They include these lucky breaks:

The “gut feeling”

September 26, 1983. A Soviet early warning satellite showed that the United States had launched five landbased missiles at the Soviet Union. The alert came at a time of high tension between the two countries, due in part to the U.S. military buildup in the early 1980s and President Ronald Reagan’s anti-Soviet rhetoric. In addition, earlier in the month the Soviet Union shot down a Korean Airlines passenger plane that strayed into its airspace, killing almost 300 people. The Soviet officer on duty had only minutes to decide whether or not the satellite data were a false alarm. Since the satellite was found to be operating properly, following procedures would have led him to report an incoming attack.

Going partly on gut instinct and believing the United States was unlikely to fire only five missiles, he told his commanders that it was a false alarm before he knew that to be true. Later investigations revealed that reflection of the sun on the tops of clouds had fooled the satellite into thinking it was detecting missile launches.

The leader not at home:

October 5, 1960. The U.S. early warning radar at Thule, Greenland, reported to the North American Air Defense (NORAD) Command headquarters in Colorado Springs that it had detected dozens of Soviet missiles launched against the United States. NORAD went to its maximum alert level. The United States later determined that the radar had been fooled by the moonrise over Norway and computers misinterpreted this as an all-out attack on the United States. Fortunately, the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev was in New York at the time, raising doubts that the attack was real (Schlosser 2013, pp. 253–254).

Not all nuclear close calls involve ICBMs. Recently U.N. General Secretary António Guterres had many dangers in mind, including tensions arising from the Ukraine war. In a speech at a conference on the treaty on proliferation of nuclear weapons, he said:

Today, humanity is just one misunderstanding, one miscalculation away from nuclear annihilation.

The Union of Concerned Scientists identifies our land-based ICBM force as the likeliest source for misunderstanding and miscalculation.

The UCS on ICBMs

The Union of Concerned Scientists says the U.S. ICBM force is dangerous and unnecessary as a deterrent. In “The Case for Eliminating ICBMs,” they give a number of reasons for this position. ICBMs are at risk for unintended or mistaken launch. As I noted above, the decision to launch must be made quickly and under intense pressure and cannot be reversed. ICBMs are expensive. Current plans call for upgrading and even replacing them at tremendous cost. As other needs cry out for attention, the U.S. “far outspends every other member of the nuclear club” – nearly half of the $72.9 billion the world spends on nukes. Finally, ICBMs are unnecessary. Physicist David Wright says,

Sixty years ago, ICBMs were more accurate and powerful than submarine-launched ballistic missiles, and communications links with subs were unreliable. Today, sub-launched missiles are as accurate as ICBMs if not more so, and the Navy has secure submarine communication links….

UCS recommendations

Along with other organizations, the Union of Concerned Scientists recommends:

  • That the United States declare that it will never use nuclear weapons first,
  • That the U.S. revoke the policy that gives presidents sole discretion on the launch of nuclear weapons,
  • That ICBMs no longer be on high-alert status,
  • That the U.S. “pursue a multilateral, verifiable agreement with nuclear-armed nations to eliminate their arsenals.

In addition, the UCS recommends scrapping the entire ICBM fleet.

Political obstacles, of course, stand in the way of that last action. The Air Force would object to reduction in their total budget. Lawmakers would see a loss of ICBM-related jobs in their states. Defense contractors would no longer have contracts to build and maintain new ICBMs.

Recognizing the powerful forces aligned in favor of ICBMs, the UCS insists on, at least, dropping the plan to replace the whole ICBM force. The Air Force’s own assessments, instead, support maintaining and extending the life of the current fleet. It remains “state of the art … capable of meeting all modern challenges,” the Air Force says.

A step in the right direction? — The way a Catholic sees it

The Union of Concerned Scientists and the Catholic Church have the same ultimate goal. For the sake of avoiding a nuclear Armageddon or even one more detonation of a nuclear bomb in warfare and to avoid waste of precious resources, nations should abandon nuclear weapons. On the UCS’s specific proposal to scrap the U.S. ICBM fleet, I don’t know of any Church position or even any Church expertise.

I certainly don’t know well enough either the politics or the technology of nuclear warfare. And I’m leaving out a variety of proposals, including limits on cruise missiles and anti-missile defense systems. (Paradoxically, missile defense, unless clearly targeted toward conventional weapons or rogue actors, can seem like preparation for a nuclear first-strike.) Still, I think the proposal to scrap the ICBM portion of our nuclear triad is worth pursuing.

I would add what the UCS implies but doesn’t say clearly: scrap them unilaterally. This would leave us short, if parity with Russia’s nuclear force is pivotal. But the remaining two-thirds of our deterrent is more than adequate to inflict unacceptable destruction on any country that would attack us. In other words, contrary to the Church’s moral stand, deterrence would still be the name of the game, but in a safer, less resource-intense form.

The main point is: Where are we heading? If it’s not toward worldwide nuclear disarmament but simply keeping up with Russia, it’s in the wrong direction. Rather than keep up with Russia – hard to distinguish from pursuing the lead – I go along with the Union of Concerned Scientists. Perhaps it would challenge Russia to respond with its own daring move toward a nuclear-free world. Or face the reproach of the 122 nations that voted, with the Vatican, for the Treaty on the Prohibition of [all] Nuclear Weapons.

"She turned her head behind her back 😂E.9226C.US/xX5686e"

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