On Tuesday, April 22, 2009, John Clay, sector vice president, Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems, addressed a conference sponsored by the National Institute for Public Policy, “The Role of America’s Land-Based Strategic Forces in the 21st Century” in Washington, D.C. Below are his remarks.

The Future of the U.S. ICBM

I want to thank the conference organizers for giving me this opportunity to discuss the future of our nation’s ICBM force. This is a critical issue. Yet it is one little debated here in Washington, or even well understood.

Very few Americans appreciate the progress that has been made in arms control. Few know that our ICBM force has been reduced to the levels of the Eisenhower Administration.

In the relaxed environment after the end of the Cold War, it was only natural, I suppose, that policymakers would turn their attention away from strategic issues. Over the years, the ICBM program became the least fashionable element of this suddenly unfashionable subject.

Now, as a new administration begins to work through the next iteration of the Nuclear Posture Review, the ICBM force is sure to come under renewed scrutiny. I can expect that the authors of the Nuclear Posture Review will consider four options when it comes to ICBMs:

Retire them —

Reduce them —

Replace them —

Or maintain them —

When the Obama Administration writes its NPR, however, it will do so in a world far from the relaxed environment of the immediate post-Cold War era. So let me examine these four options in light of recent developments.

The first option is retire them: Do we need an ICBM force?

A Washington-based think tank, known to be close to some of the president’s advisors, released a report questioning whether all three legs of the triad are needed, especially the air and land legs.(1 )

As the United States heads toward fulfilling the terms of the Moscow Treaty—reducing U.S. operational warheads to a limit of 1,700 to 2,200—I can understand why scrapping the land leg seems thinkable to some.

After all, we have already taken many of our systems out of service—including the Peacekeeper ICBM, half of our Minutemen, and a number of ballistic missile submarines. Our B-1 heavy bombers and four Trident submarines no longer have nuclear missions.

Do we really need, then, the remaining 450 Minutemen IIIs to keep America safe?

I believe that when the administration takes a hard look at this question, it will conclude—as have ten previous presidents—that each leg of the triad is vital; and that the land leg is critical to maintaining a stabilizing deterrent.

Stability is the goal. We’ve all followed the dramatic news in North Korea, Iran and an increasingly unstable Pakistan.

Then there are developments taking place among the great powers.

While dramatic reductions have been achieved with Russia, Moscow is scaling up the modernization of its nuclear forces, including a MIRVed ICBM and a new maneuverable warhead.

Moscow has also changed its strategic doctrine, adopting the lowest threshold for first-use of any nuclear power.

Then there is China, with ten types of ballistic missile systems either operational or under development.(2 )

A DoD report late last year concluded: “The newly self-confident and economically vibrant China is modernizing and increasing its nuclear forces . . . Given these developments in both Russia and China, our allies in Europe and Asia understandably require reassuring.”(3 ) This, of course, is what we refer to as “extended deterrence.”

There may be good diplomatic reasons why the large-scale forces of Russia and the United States — the only forces in which warheads and missiles are counted in the thousands — are the only two parties in arms control. It may be time to ask, however, if China should forever remain excluded.

After all, China’s nuclear weight has vastly increased. China, as well as Russia, has an ability to destroy our three bomber and two submarine bases. And there is always the non-zero risk that somehow, someone will discover a way to make the seas transparent. With 450 Minuteman III ICBMs, no enemy could conceivably mount such a cheap attack.

Why is this?

As we draw down our nuclear forces, the character of our remaining forces will be more important than the actual warhead numbers. Our strategic triad complicates an enemy’s first-strike capability to the point of near-impossibility.

Even if an adversary were 90 percent effective with a one-on-one attack—and that is a very generous assumption, given uncertainties of reliability, fratricide, and willingness of the US President to ride it out—the adversary would still have 45 Minutemen to contend with. That is not a very attractive position for any national leader.

Because our land-based deterrent is different from the other two legs, it complicates the synchronicity of a first-strike. It insures that such a first-strike attack on the United States would be a suicide move.

Seen in this light, our ICBM force is a very stabilizing deterrent.

Now, this message has been a hard sell in some quarters. Some observers have, I think, a hangover disdain from the Peacekeeper, which had up to ten MIRVed warheads, making it a potentially tempting target.

Yet our existing U.S. ICBM force, as you know, is on the track to be completely “de-MIRVed.” It is no longer the “use-it-or-lose-it” target that was a staple of so much Cold War fiction. Additionally, Minuteman’s short time of execution reduces the urgency for our president to decide quickly on the appropriate response.

The U.S. land-leg deterrent offers a stabilizing element in an increasingly unstable world. So discarding the ICBM is not, in my opinion, either a responsible or a realistic option for now.

What, then, about the second option, to reduce our ICBM force?

By 2010, the United States will have reached the Moscow Treaty limits—a two-thirds reduction of our deployed nuclear force levels from about eight years ago. In a world of emergent threats, will it be prudent to cut beyond that?

After all, if we cut our force, considerations of cost and logistical support would suggest a need to go beyond eliminating a 50-missile squadron. Rather, economic logic would dictate giving up an entire missile wing—150 launchers—and closing one of the bases. That would mean a 33 percent reduction in our already depleted ICBM force.

Again, is this prudent?

Remember that as we have cut our strategic forces, we have also given greater weight to their use as an incentive against proliferation. Recent policy now also contemplates retaliation for biological or chemical attacks against a growing list of possible actors. Another consideration is the ability to maintain a critical mass of AF and industry expertise. At some point as the ICBM force becomes smaller, retaining the skills, industrial capabilities, and high-levels of process integrity becomes impractical. It is going to become quite difficult to continue to expand the missions for a salami-sliced arsenal.

If the administration does decide to cut our strategic triad, our land-based ICBM force—reduced by 82 percent just since 1990—should be the last place to cut. Otherwise, we would risk seriously unbalancing our triad. If cuts are to be made, perhaps it would be worth considering focusing first on reductions in the weapons loads of the other legs. In this same spirit, we might consider reducing stockpiled weapons rather than taking most or all of any agreed negotiations from the pool of stationed weapons.

Or perhaps we may not want to make any further cuts at all. Perhaps we might want to dwell at this safe plateau until we have a better sense of the future.

On this point, let me quote Secretary Robert Gates, who said:

“Who can tell what the world will look like in 10 to 20 years? As someone who spent most of his career in the intelligence business, I can assure you that our track record for long-term guesswork hasn’t been all that great. We have to know our limitations. We have to acknowledge that the fundamental nature of man hasn’t changed—and that our adversaries and other nations will always seek whatever advantages they can find. Knowing that, we have to be prepared for contingencies we haven’t even considered.”

The third option, is replacing the Minuteman III with a new ICBM.

For we missileers and engineers, this is an exciting path.

However, to this option, we missileers and engineers also need to get real.

By that, I mean get real about the budget. Our defense budget is facing huge future constraints. The last ICBM cost $100 billion, in current dollars. By comparison, extending Minuteman to 2030 required an $8 billion and similar life extensions can be repeated indefinitely as I will explain later.

I would also have to say, get real about the politics.

Recent sessions of Congress have said “no” to the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator

— said “no” to the conversion of the Trident to conventional uses

— said “no” to the Reliable Replacement Warhead

— said “no” to building a modern pit production facility.

Could anyone look at this political environment and realistically suggest $100 billion for a new ICBM?

As stiff as the challenges would be, a replacement campaign would also have to get real about local politics. Communities are not only comfortable with the legacy Minuteman, they champion it with patriotic pride. They know that in this time of base closures, the Minuteman is a continuing rationale for Air Force bases in their states and that the economic benefits are considerable.

A new missile, however, would face stiff local NIMBYism. At a time when it is all but impossible to build a new oil refinery, it would be difficult, if not impossible, to base a new nuclear weapons system. “Exhibit One” is the challenge faced by the Peacekeeker program in the 1980s. After years of studying dozens of basing options, the compromise option was to deploy it in none other than the Minuteman silos.

Moreover, what would a new missile offer by way of deterrence that the Minuteman III force does not offer? What would the customer want a missile to do that the Minuteman III doesn’t do today? With modest investment, Minuteman can add accuracy, range, maneuverability, and other new capabilities. However, the warfighter is not asking for these – the warfighters’ priorities we hear are robust force security and reducing the cost of ownership.

If, despite all of these obstacles, our answer is still to proceed with a new ICBM, then we had better get going now. As you can see here, it might take to close to 2030 to fully replace Minuteman III. If you look at the example of the Peacekeeper, it took 16 years to develop, test and field them.

We should never dismiss the idea of a new missile. The threat environment could change or an unanticipated opportunity could materialize, such as a joint Air Force-Navy missile. However, it is very possible that if we attempted to replace our Minuteman IIIs, they would ultimately never really be replaced.

This leads me to the fourth option—extend Minuteman III beyond 2030.

To understand extension, consider that while the Minuteman program has its origins in the 1970s, these are hardly 1970s missiles in our silos today.

How can that be?

There is an old problem in Greek philosophy called the Ship of Theseus. Plutarch reported that Athenians had lovingly maintained a old war ship with thirty oars. Over time, water and worms wore down every plank and oar. Year by year, the components of the ship were switched by fresh timber, until every square inch of the ship was replaced.

So was it the same ship, or a new one?

I’ll leave the answer to students of philosophy. I just know that like the ship of this legend, the Minuteman of today retains its original design with a mix of original and, where aging has necessitated, new subsystems and components.

For example, every one of the 5,000 parts of the Minuteman’s gyro stabilized platform can be re-manufactured and many have already been replaced. Although repoured multiple times, Minuteman rocket motors retain their original design, which has never failed in almost 200 test launches. The Air Force is currently refitting the re-entry system and replacing the cryptology. And these are just a few life extension examples.

How is this workable? Simple, the engineers must honor the interfaces between the missile subsystems – the connectors, electrical signals, mass properties, and bolt patterns. The result is a Minuteman III that remains a highly reliable and credible deterrent as demonstrated in ground and flight testing. There is no technical reason why Minuteman III extension cannot continue indefinitely.

As the Air Force embraces its renewed focus on the nuclear enterprise—as the Obama administration reaches out to build an enduring peace—the Minuteman can serve as a highly credible deterrent that is stabilizing, secure, responsive, flexible, and highly affordable.

It will continue to deter potential enemies, dissuade potential nuclear states and assure allies that our nuclear capabilities are credible.

And what about the future?

President Obama now enunciates the same goal that Ronald Reagan once proclaimed—a desire to rid the earth of all weapons of mass destruction. I don’t know if a verifiable, global deal to zero is possible. If it is, this is a piece of business we would all be glad to lose.

If I may again quote Secretary Gates, I will let him have the final word.

Robert Gates said that he worked for three Cold War presidents—Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, and George H.W. Bush—who all genuinely wanted to eliminate all nuclear weapons.

“More recently,” Secretary Gates noted, “George Shultz, William Perry, Henry Kissinger, and Sam Nunn echoed that sentiment in The Wall Street Journal. But all have come up against the reality that as long as others have nuclear weapons, we must maintain some level of these weapons ourselves: to deter potential adversaries and to reassure over two dozen allies and partners who rely on our nuclear umbrella for our security—making it unnecessary for them to develop their own.”

I am hopeful that there will one day be no nuclear weapons.

Until that day comes, however, we have the Minuteman III as the means to ensure that the world continues to head in the right direction.


1 “Orienting the 2009 Nuclear Posture Review,” Center for American Progress. 
2 The Future of the U.S. Nuclear Deterrent, Mark Schneider, National Institute for Public Policy. 
3 Report of the Secretary of Defense Task Force on DoD Nuclear Weapons Management, December 2008.