By: Brian Ronning, USAF Retired:
Recently, the United States Air Force announced it was going to begin replacing the Minuteman III Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs). The Minuteman III was deployed in the 1960s, standing a silent watch in silos built 10 years prior. To say this upgrade is long overdue is a gross understatement.
This stationary leg of our nuclear triad deterrent has become increasingly expensive to maintain. This weapons system still relies on old analog technology and replacement parts are few and far between. When parts fail, they have to be quickly repaired and placed back into service. The lack of available parts increases maintenance costs and threatens system reliability since serviceable missiles are brought offline in order to use their parts to bring multiple other missiles back online while awaiting replacement parts. This process is known as cannibalization and is also a common practice among the aircraft maintenance units as well. While this process does serve to potentially bring multiple missiles back on status, it does so at a risk. Good parts can be damaged during installation or an unknown fault could cause a failure of the known good part after installation. Resultantly, maintenance crews are performing additional work in moving parts around.
Another aspect putting our nuclear deterrence at risk is the failing condition of the very silos in which the missiles reside. Built in the 1950s, the concrete silos are crumbling. This allows the intrusion of ground water leading to the rusting of vital support components and increasing the rate of decay of the reinforced concrete bunkers. Clearly action is long overdue.
At the end of the Cold War, I remember hearing the calls to downsize the military. After all, we won. Russia was no longer a threat and the remaining “threats” were nowhere near as advanced as we were. The strongest calls for arms reductions came against our nuclear deterrents, the missiles, aircraft, and submarines. Having served in the Air Force, I know firsthand the rush to repurpose our aircraft – the B-52 and B-1 bombers. For those platforms, it was easy enough. Some modifications and then they were carrying massive payloads of conventional weapons into the battlefields of the Middle East. Unfortunately, it was not that simple for our ICBMs.
As a result, upgrades and replacements were delayed or canceled in an effort to cut defense budgets or to free up funding for systems used on the battlefield. At the time, it didn’t seem to be that big of a deal. There was no real nuclear threat. Russia was a shell of its former self and China was a major trading partner. Then, on 9 October, 2006 the unthinkable happened. North Korea conducted an underground test of a nuclear weapon. In the last 10 years, they have conducted numerous tests, sometimes as many as 4 four per year. Coupled with their advancement of missile technologies, which has served to extend the range of the weapons which now puts Alaska and Guam within reach. Granted, they have suffered many setbacks due to failed launches; however, the fact that they have had many successful launches can’t be ignored. It is clear, their intent is to develop a long-range nuclear tipped missile capable of reaching the continental United States. Just as back in the 1940s and 1950s, the nuclear threat against us is building.
In addition to the building threat from North Korea, we now have Russia beginning to flex its military might yet again. Their bombers have begun flying reconnaissance and penetration test missions into Alaskan airspace causing units there to once again stand ready at combat interception alert. Russian aircraft have also begun “buzzing” our ships in the Persian Gulf and Arabian Sea. While these events do not warrant the concern for large scale retaliation, we do have to take note of the provocative nature of these events. It is clear the Russians are again working at showing their strength as a world power and this is something that we must recognize and become proactive towards in order to continue protecting our interests both at home and abroad.
So now the Air Force announces it will begin to replace the Minuteman III ICBM with a new missile system known only as the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD). Unfortunately, due to the current level of politics involved in bringing a new piece of military hardware online (the lengthy contract bidding, award and development processes) this new missile isn’t expected to be introduced for at least a decade and then a projected further decade to replace the existing fleet. Given the most recent developments of the F-22 and F-35 fighters, both of which went well over budget and experienced significant deployment delays, I believe that the current forecast of 20 years to full deployment is a longshot at best. Plus, it’s doubtful the estimated cost of $86 billion over the expected 50-year life cycle is accurate as well. All of this has become fodder for the critics who continue to believe that we no longer need these defensive weapons. This is nearsightedness we must shake off and quick!
In order to keep up with the current non-ally nuclear powers (Russia, China, and North Korea) we must radically streamline our procurement process. We cannot afford to suddenly find ourselves in a position of weakness brought on by aging equipment and decrepit silos. After all, we are the United States of America. We are the country the world depends on to keep the peace in a tumultuous day and age.
Brian Ronning is an OpsLens Contributor and retired Air Force veteran.