Facebook Twitter

Guest opinion: Utah and the nation would be safer without the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent

SHARE Guest opinion: Utah and the nation would be safer without the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent
Downtown Salt Lake City, with the Wasatch Mountains in the background.

Douglas Pulsipher

Utah expects to benefit modestly from the Pentagon’s plan to build almost 700 new intercontinental ballistic missiles and emplace 400 of them, each tipped with a nuclear warhead 20 times more powerful than the one that destroyed Hiroshima, in underground silos in Colorado, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota and Wyoming. (The other 300 will be used in flight tests and kept in reserve for crisis deployment in spare silos.) Northrop Grummon, which will lead the $125 billion project to develop and produce these weapons of mass destruction, has announced that it will coordinate the project from a new facility in Utah.

This is no occasion to rejoice, however. The project may be a boon for Northrop Grummon but it will perpetuate unnecessary nuclear risk.

The project violates a core principle of nuclear deterrence: strategic forces must be invulnerable. A vulnerable nuclear deterrent destabilizes the balance of terror and increases the risk of nuclear war.

Replacing the existing Minuteman III missiles with the new missiles, bureaucratically named Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent, will do nothing to reduce their vulnerability. The replacement missiles are to be housed in the same underground silos that have been rendered vulnerable over the past couple of decades by accuracy improvements in Russia’s intercontinental nuclear missiles. This would tempt Russia to strike first in a crisis.

The only chance of the silo-based force surviving such a first strike would be by launching quickly ahead of the arrival of incoming enemy warheads just 10 to 30 minutes away. But a president, given perhaps 6 minutes to decide whether and how to retaliate, could hastily order their launch on the basis of attack indications that may turn out be false.

False alarms caused by human and technical error have happened on both sides during and after the Cold War. Fortunately, they were recognized as erroneous before the launch command was due but the danger remains, and is growing. Hackers, who have become pervasive in recent years, could, for example, corrupt the early-warning radar and satellite data on which presidential launch decisions depend. Practice missiles are equipped with explosives to destroy them in case they go astray but those devices are removed from our deployed alert missiles for fear that an enemy could hack into their radio receivers and neutralize a U.S. attack.

Vulnerable land-based strategic missiles on hair-trigger alert that will launch immediately upon receipt of a short-stream of computer signals exert pressure on nuclear decision makers to “use or lose” them during a crisis. They are a civilization-ending accident waiting to happen. It defies reason to maintain the current missiles in this risky configuration, and it is totally misguided to replace these missiles in the same old vulnerable silos. Our Minutemen missiles should be taken off hair-trigger, phased out and not replaced.

The United States possesses ample nuclear firepower in its ballistic-missile submarines and at its nuclear bomber bases to deter any sane adversary. Indeed, the Pentagon’s plan to build new submarines, bombers and stealthy long-range cruise missiles will maintain vastly more firepower than is necessary to destroy the key elements of state control, power and wealth in Russia, China and North Korea combined. President Reagan preferred nuclear bombers to nuclear missiles because they could be recalled in case of a false alarm. And submarines do not have to launch their missiles on warning. At sea, they are untargetable and would be available for weeks or months to strike back.

Both Utah and the nation would be much more secure without this project. The money should be spent on programs that would actually benefit the nation rather than imperil its very existence.

Bruce Blair is a former Minuteman launch-control officer, and Frank von Hippel is a former White House advisor on nuclear security. Both are currently researchers at Princeton University’s Program on Science and Global Security.