The single best option for reducing the risk of nuclear war is hidden in plain sight. News outlets don’t mention it. Pundits ignore it. Even progressive and peace-oriented members of Congress tiptoe around it. And yet, for many years, experts have been calling for this act of sanity that could save humanity: Shutting down all of the nation’s intercontinental ballistic missiles.
Four hundred ICBMs dot the rural landscapes of Colorado, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, and Wyoming. Loaded in silos, these missiles are uniquely—and dangerously—on hair-trigger alert. Unlike the nuclear weapons on submarines or bombers, the land-based missiles are vulnerable to attack and could present the commander in chief with a sudden use-them-or-lose-them choice. “If our sensors indicate that enemy missiles are en route to the United States, the president would have to consider launching ICBMs before the enemy missiles could destroy them. Once they are launched, they cannot be recalled,” former Defense Secretary William Perry warns. “The president would have less than 30 minutes to make that terrible decision.”
The danger that a false alarm on either side—of the sort that has occurred repeatedly on both sides—would lead to a preemptive attack derives almost entirely from the existence on both sides of land-based missile forces, each vulnerable to attack by the other; each, therefore, is kept on a high state of alert, ready to launch within minutes of warning. The easiest and fastest way for the US to reduce that risk—and, indeed, the overall danger of nuclear war—is to dismantle entirely its Minuteman III missile force. Gen. James E. Cartwright, a former vice chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who had been commander of the Strategic Command, teamed up with former Minuteman launch officer Bruce G. Blair to write in a 2016 op-ed piece: “By scrapping the vulnerable land-based missile force, any need for launching on warning disappears.”
But rather than confront the reality that ICBMs—all ICBMs—are such a grave threat to human survival, the most concerned members of Congress have opted to focus on stopping new ones from taking the place of existing ones. A year ago, the Air Force awarded Northrop Grumman a $13.3 billion “engineering and manufacturing development” contract for replacing the current Minuteman III missiles with a new generation of ICBMs named the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent. Current projections peg the overall cost over the next five decades at $364 billion. Northrop Grumman calls the GBSD “the modernization of the ground-based leg of the nuclear triad.” But if reducing the dangers of nuclear war is a goal, the top priority should be to remove the triad’s ground-based leg—not modernize it.
Many arms-control advocates, while understanding the inherent dangers of ground-based nuclear missiles, have largely stuck to opposing the GBSD. Instead of challenging ICBMs outright, a coalition of organizations has concentrated on aiming a fiscal argument at Capitol Hill, calling the GBSD program a “money pit” that would squander vast amounts of taxpayer dollars. But the powerful chair of the House Armed Services Committee, Adam Smith, executed a deft end run around that strategy in early summer when he declared that “Minuteman extension, as it is currently being explained to us, is actually more expensive than building the GBSD.”