Imagine it is 3am, and the president of the US is asleep in the White House master bedroom. A military officer stationed in an office nearby retrieves an aluminum suitcase — the “football” containing the launch codes for the US’ nuclear arsenal — and rushes to wake the commander-in-chief.
Early warning systems show that Russia has just launched 100 intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) at the US, the officer informs the president. The nuclear weapons will reach US targets in 30 minutes or less.
Bruce Blair, a Princeton specialist on nuclear disarmament who once served as an ICBM launch control officer, said the president would have at most 10 minutes to decide whether to fire the US’ own land-based ICBMs at Russia.
Illustration: June Hsu
“It is a case of use or lose them,” Blair said.
A snap decision is necessary, current doctrine holds, because US missile silos have well-known, fixed locations. US strategists assume that Russia would try to knock the missiles out in a first strike before they could be used for retaliation.
Of all weapons in the US nuclear arsenal, the ICBM is the one most likely to cause accidental nuclear war, arms-control specialists say. It is for this reason that a growing number of former defense officials, scholars of military strategy and members of the US Congress have begun calling for the elimination of ICBMs.
They have said that in the event of an apparent enemy attack, a president’s decision to launch must be made so fast that there would not be time to verify the threat.
False warnings could arise from human error, malfunctioning early-warning satellites or hacking by third parties.
Once launched, the US’ current generation of ICBMs, the Minuteman III, cannot be recalled: They have no communication equipment, because the US fears on-board gear would be vulnerable to electronic interference by an enemy.
The critics recommend relying instead on the other two legs of the US’ nuclear “triad”: submarine-launched ballistic missiles and heavy bombers armed with hydrogen bombs or nuclear-warhead cruise missiles, as the president would have more time to decide whether to use submarines or bombers.
Bombers take longer to reach their targets than ICBMs and can be recalled if a threat turns out to be a false alarm. Nuclear missile submarines can be stationed closer to their targets and are undetectable, so their locations are unknown to the US’ adversaries. There is virtually no danger that the submarines could be knocked out before launching their missiles.
Among the advocates of dismantling the ICBM force is former US secretary of defense William Perry, who served under former US president Bill Clinton.
In a recent interview, Perry said the US should get rid of its ICBMs because “responding to a false alarm is only too easy.”
An erroneous decision would be apocalyptic, he said.
“I don’t think any person should have to make that decision in seven or eight minutes,” he added.
Former US secretary of defense Leon Panetta, who served during former US president Barack Obama’s administration, defended the triad while in office.
However, in a recent interview he said he has reconsidered.
“There is no question that out of the three elements of the triad, the Minuteman missiles are at a stage now where they’re probably the most antiquated of the triad,” he said.
The risk of launch error is even greater in Russia, several arms control experts said.
The US has about 30 minutes from the time of warning to assess the threat and launch its ICBMs, they said, adding that Russia has less, by some estimates only 15 minutes.
That is because after the Cold War, Russia did not replace its early warning satellites, which by 2014 had worn out.
Moscow is only now beginning to replace them. Meanwhile, it relies mainly on ground-based radar, which can detect missiles only once they appear over the horizon.
In contrast, the US has a comprehensive, fully functioning fleet of early warning satellites. These orbiters can detect a Russian missile from the moment of launch.
The doubts about the ICBM force are circulating as the world faces its most serious nuclear standoff in years: the heated war of words over Pyongyang’s growing atomic weapons program between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. US-Russian nuclear tensions have increased as well.
The questioning of the missile fleet also comes as the US pursues a massive, multi-year modernization of its nuclear arsenal that is making its weapons more accurate and deadly.
Some strategists have decried the US’ upgrade — and similar moves by Moscow — as dangerously destabilizing.
Skeptics of the modernization program also have cited Trump’s impulsiveness as further reason to oppose the hair-trigger ICBM fleet.
The enormously consequential decision to launch requires a president with a cool and rational personality, Perry said.
“I’m particularly concerned if the person lacks experience, background, knowledge and temperament” to make the decision, he said.
This month, the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations held a hearing to discuss the president’s authority to launch a first-strike nuclear attack.
Democratic US Senator Ed Markey has called for that authority to be curbed, although such a break with decades of practice does not have broad support.
“Donald Trump can launch nuclear codes just as easily as he can use his Twitter account,” Markey said. “I don’t think we should be trusting the generals to be a check on the president.”
A spokesperson for the White House National Security Council dismissed any suggestion that Trump lacks the skills to handle the arsenal.
“The president is pre-eminently prepared to make all decisions regarding the employment of our nuclear forces,” she said.
Doubts about ICBMs predated the change of administrations in Washington.
ICBMs are largely useless as a deterrent against threats such as North Korea, detractors have said, arguing that the land-based missiles can be fired only at one conceivable adversary: Russia.
That is because, to reach an adversary such as North Korea, China or Iran from North America, the ICBMs would have to overfly Russia — thus risking an intentional or accidental nuclear response by Moscow. (A small number of the US’ ICBMs are aimed at China, in case Washington finds itself at war with both Moscow and Beijing.)
Despite the rising criticism, for now there is little chance that the US will retire its ICBM fleet. To supporters, eliminating that part of the triad would be like sawing one leg off a three-legged stool.
Obama and now Trump have stood by them, and there is little interest in Congress to consider dismantlement.
Well before Trump picked him to be the US secretary of defense, General James Mattis raised questions about keeping the US ICBM force, in part because of dangers of accidental launch.
In 2015, he told the US Senate Committee on Armed Services: “You should ask, ‘Is it time to reduce the triad to a dyad, removing the land-based missiles?’”
In his Senate confirmation hearing as defense secretary, Mattis said that he now supports keeping ICBMs.
They provide an extra layer of deterrence in hardened silos, he said.
The National Security Council spokesperson said that no decision had been made on keeping ICBMs.
Trump has ordered a review by the end of this year of US nuclear policy and no decision will be made until then, she said.
ICBMs are part of the US’ overall nuclear modernization program, which is expected to cost at least US$1.25 trillion over 30 years. The missiles are being refurbished and upgraded to make them more accurate and lethal, and the US is building a new class of ICBMs to be fielded in about 2030.
The US Air Force has confirmed that the current refurbished Minuteman IIIs have improved guidance systems and a bigger third-stage engine, making them more precise and able to carry bigger payloads.
The US’ nuclear missile force dates back to the 1950s. Lacking expertise in making rockets, the US after World War II scoured Germany for the scientists who had built the V2 rockets that Germany fired on Britain.
Under a secret plan, Washington spirited scientists such as former SS sturmbannfuhrer Wernher von Braun, later considered the father of the US’ rocketry, out of Germany, away from possible war crimes prosecution, in exchange for helping the United States.
By 1947 the Cold War was on. The former Nazi rocket designers would help the US build superfast, long-range missiles that could rain nuclear warheads on the Soviet Union’s population.
The program began slowly. That changed on Oct. 4, 1957, when Soviet Union launched the Sputnik 1, a small satellite, into the Earth’s orbit, beating the US into space.
For the Pentagon, the most significant fact was that Sputnik had been launched by an ICBM capable of reaching the US homeland. The US put its missile program into overdrive, launching its own ICBM in November 1959.
The ICBMs’ advantage over bombers was that they could reach their targets in 30 minutes. Even bombers taking off from European bases could take hours to reach their ground zeroes.
By 1966, once an order was given to missile crews, pre-launch time was minimized to five minutes. This resulted from a change in fuel.
Before, liquid fuel powered ICBMs. In a lengthy process, it had to be loaded immediately before launch. The invention of solid fuel solved the problem. It was installed when the missile was built, and remained viable for decades.
One reason that arms specialists worry about the ICBM force is that the US and Russia have come close to committing potentially catastrophic errors multiple times.
In 1985, for example, a full nuclear alert went out when a US Strategic Command computer showed that the Soviet Union had launched 200 ICBMs at the US.
Fortunately, the officer in charge realized that there was a fault in the computer and that no missiles had been launched, Perry wrote in My Journey at the Nuclear Brink.
The problem was traced to a faulty circuit board, but not before the same mistake happened two weeks later.
In 1995, then-Russian president Boris Yeltsin had his finger on the button, because the Russians had detected a missile launched from Norway, which they assumed to be American.
Russian officials determined just in time that it was not a nuclear missile.
They later learned that it was a harmless scientific research rocket. Norway had warned Russia well in advance of the launch — but the information was never passed on to radar technicians.
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