Both in politics and war, what matters is speed.” — Julius Caesar
In the 2020 elections, perhaps the most important, and least appreciated, issue: a Biden administration will almost certainly abolish unilaterally America’s 400 land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs).
ICBMs, according to U.S. Strategic Command, are “the bedrock of our strategic posture” but the Minuteman III, a half-century old, needs to be replaced by a new ICBM. The anti-nuclear left has persuaded top Democrats ICBMs are unnecessary.
ICBMs are the most important weapon in the U.S. nuclear Triad — faster, more combat-ready, and more responsive than strategic bombers and missile submarines.
Everyday, anytime, in the few minutes required to receive an Emergency Action Message and turn two keys, U.S. ICBMs can launch 400 of the most powerful, accurate, effective nuclear warheads, delivering them anywhere in 30 minutes or less.
The awesome capabilities of U.S. ICBMs for decades prevented the Cold War from becoming World War III. Today, U.S. ICBMs continue their role as the most immediate and most powerful nuclear deterrent, overshadowing every big military and diplomatic move on the global chessboard by Russia, China, North Korea and Iran.
U.S. ICBMs are the Sword of Damocles hanging over the heads of America’s enemies, protecting the U.S. homeland and allies from surprise attack.
Yet, almost immediately after the 2018 elections gave Democrats control of the House, the House Armed Services Committee held hearings to make the case for abolishing U.S. ICBMs and nuclear bombers — two-thirds of the nuclear Triad — and relying only on ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs).
House hearings also proposed halving U.S. SSBNs from 12 to six boats, barely enough to sustain just two SSBNs on patrol at sea.
These radically irresponsible ideas, that used to be the fantasies of the anti-nuclear left — including groups like Ploughshares, Union of Concerned Scientists, Federation of American Scientists and the Arms Control Association — are now mainstream thinking for Democrats.
President Clinton’s former Secretary of Defense, William Perry, and many other Democrat defense professionals likely to influence a Biden administration, vociferously advocate banning ICBMs. (See the report “Rethinking Land-Based Nuclear Missiles” Union of Concerned Scientists: June 22, 2020).
Democrats now subscribe to nuclear deterrence minimalism, which theory assumes that only a small number of SSBNs are needed to deter nuclear war, and that nothing can go wrong with their warheads, missiles or the submarines — assumptions which defy all of military history.
The nuclear Triad was invented by the Great Generation who survived and won World War II where, for the Allies at the beginning, confidently propounded pre-war military theories and sophisticated weapons went wrong. France’s “impregnable” Maginot Line was rendered obsolete by Nazi Germany’s Blitzkrieg strategy. Allied infantry and tanks were overwhelmed and outclassed by Axis panzer divisions. Battleships were rendered obsolete by aircraft carriers at Pearl Harbor. U.S. torpedoes did not work, but dive bombers miraculously saved the day at Midway.
As in World War II, a lot can go wrong with the best laid plans and weapons in a nuclear World War III.
The nuclear Triad is designed with multiple redundant delivery and weapon systems just in case things go wrong, to assuredly deter and defeat a nuclear aggressor:
• Bombers can deliver nuclear or conventional weapons and can be recalled. But they need to be generated, are the slowest delivery system, might not penetrate air defenses, and could all be destroyed on their 3 bases with just a few warheads in a surprise attack.
• ICBMs can strike fastest, deliver the most accurate and effective warheads, are rapidly retargetable, have the most secure-survivable communications, each carries one warhead so can be used singly and selectively or massively as circumstances demand. Located in 400 hardened silos spread across several states, destruction of all U.S. ICBMs would require a big, highly coordinated and costly attack, needing at least 400 enemy warheads. However, as adversary weapons become more accurate and stealthy, U.S. ICBMs are increasingly vulnerable.
• SSBNs are far more vulnerable than ICBMs to surprise attack, as two-thirds of U.S. missile submarines are berthed at two ports, where they could be destroyed by nuclear or conventional weapons, highly tempting targets as every submarine sunk eliminates 20 strategic missiles and 60-80 warheads. SSBNs at sea are supposed to be “invulnerable.” Assumptions about “invulnerability” are often the first fatalities in war.
Surprise attack is the nightmare scenario — most likely to happen because it maximizes U.S. vulnerabilities — against which 400 ICBMs that can launch-on-tactical-warning are sentinels.
Surprise attack would find at sea just 4 U.S. SSBNs — none responsive as ICBMs. Most submarine missiles are MIRVed with 3-4 warheads, unsuited for many limited nuclear operations.
SSBNs are designed never to be used, a survivable reserve at sea intended to deter attack on U.S. cities.
Instead of banning U.S. ICBMs, critics should support space-based missile defenses and terrestrial Phalanx or Iron Dome defenses for ICBM silos to make unnecessary launch-on-tactical-warning, and ease unwarranted fears about an alleged nuclear “hair-trigger.”
U.S. ICBM critics fear the wrong ICBMs. While U.S. ICBMs exist to prevent war — Russia, China and North Korea favor ICBMs because they are ideal for nuclear blackmail and surprise attack.
• Dr. Peter Vincent Pry, director of the Task Force on National and Homeland Security, served as chief of staff on the Congressional EMP Commission, and on the staffs of the House Armed Service Committee and the CIA. He is author most recently of “The Power And The Light” (Amazon.com).
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