Decision on Minuteman to shape US nuclear policy for decades | News, Sports, Jobs
WASHINGTON (AP) – For 50 years, the Minuteman missile has been armed and ready, day and night, for nuclear war at any time. It has never been launched into combat from its underground silo, but this year it has become the main target of a larger political battle over the state and cost of the country’s nuclear arsenal.
Minuteman wasn’t meant to last half a century, so it’s overdue for replacement or refurbishment. Some see this as a time to push for its scrapping, abandoning a leg of traditional nuclear “triad” – weapons that can be launched from land, sea and air. Most members of Congress are in favor of maintaining the ground stage by replacing Minuteman with a new missile; President Joe Biden’s position is not yet clear.
The outcome of the struggle is likely to guide nuclear policy and strategy for decades to come. This could influence how American allies in Europe and Asia perceive the reliability of American nuclear power. “umbrella” – the safety net which has enabled most of them to give up developing their own nuclear weapons. Some argue that this could be the difference between war and peace in an era of growing Chinese military might.
Navy Adm. Charles Richard, who as head of the US Strategic Command is in charge of nuclear war plans, says Minuteman is so old that Air Force technicians have had to make magic to keep it fully functional while dealing with very limited spare parts for components such as missile launch switches.
“I’m afraid there will come a time when they won’t be able to take the rabbit out of the hat and the system won’t work,” he told a House hearing on April 21. Asked later by a reporter if he meant that Minuteman had become unreliable, Richard said it was safe and reliable for now, but with “More margin” for delay in its replacement.
Stephen Schwartz, a non-resident senior researcher at the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, says Richard’s statements are reminiscent of alarming claims made during the Cold War about the need for new weapons.
“Time and time again, officials have warned us that ‘the sky is falling’, and this is never true” Schwartz said. “Congress should critically examine the historical records and apply a healthy skepticism to such testimony.”
Richard applauds a bipartisan push in Congress to preserve and modernize the entire nuclear arsenal at a cost, how you define it, of over $ 1 trillion. Opponents include a former Secretary of Defense, William Perry, who has become an open critic of Minuteman. Current Pentagon leader Lloyd Austin has publicly disagreed with Minuteman but is in favor of preserving the nuclear triad.
The consensus in Congress is that age is eroding the three main pillars of US nuclear power – long-range bombers like the B-52 of the 1960s, submarines armed with Trident ballistic missiles and Minuteman intercontinental ballistic missiles, or ICBM. Relatively few oppose the construction of new generation bombers and submarines. The most controversial debate is whether, when and how to replace Minuteman.
The arguments about Minuteman boil down to this: given its age and the nuclear challenges posed by Russia and China, should it be phased out in favor of a next-generation ICBM? Or should it be remodeled inexpensively, to be replaced later? Or should it be phased out, period, without replacement?
The debate reveals a long-standing American divide. On the one hand, there is the idea that ICBMs are essential to the strategy of deterring any adversary from attempting a nuclear attack against the United States or its allies. A key part of the argument is that the ICBMs in their 400 underground silos in five Great Plains states are acting as a “Ribbed sink”, or sponge, to absorb the first blow in a nuclear war; the argument is that an attacker would need to spend so many weapons to destroy these silos that he would see little chance of winning and therefore be dissuaded from attacking in the first place.
The opposing view is that ICBMs are overkill, given the great firepower in the most elusive sea and air segments of the nuclear arsenal, and that ICBMs make nuclear conflict more likely because a US president could feel obligated to start one. an attack warning that turned out to be a false alarm. Once launched from its silo, an ICBM cannot be recalled.
These differences are more marked in the light of the expected stagnation of defense budgets.
Among those keen to build a successor to Minuteman, some see the political opportunity in his occasional slippages. For example, when a routine flight test was halted shortly before launch last week, Rep. Don Bacon tweeted that the incident was proof that Minuteman needed to be modernized. “before it’s too late,” although the Air Force has yet to determine what triggered the abandonment. Bacon is a Republican from Nebraska – headquarters of the Strategic Command Headquarters and some Minuteman Silos.
Biden has not publicly addressed the issue. In March, the White House issued interim national security guidelines promising to “Take action to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy” but offering no details.
As a candidate in 2019, Biden said he believed the nuclear arsenal could be upgraded for less than the expected price of $ 1 trillion, but was not specific. Some have interpreted him as if he doubts the need for new ICBMs, but so far his administration has given no indication of abandoning the plan it inherited to replace Minuteman with a successor called Strategic Deterrence. on the ground, from 2029.
Last September, Northrop Grumman won a $ 13.3 billion contract to develop the successor. The estimated cost of commissioning the full system is $ 95 billion, rising to $ 264 billion including sustainment costs over the weapon’s expected life into the 2070s.
Signs of the Biden administration’s nuclear path could appear in the upcoming 2022 budget to Congress. Pentagon is also planning a formal review of its nuclear “posture,” who will likely assert the need for nuclear modernization, but may not decide certain details.
Representative John Garamendi, a Democrat from California, is not convinced by arguments that Minuteman is simply too old to undergo an extension of his life – a refurbishment to keep him in service for decades to come.
“I need a new one,” Richard, the chief of strategic command, responded in a heated exchange with Garamendi last month.
Richard says there is no room for delays. But a new report from the Government Accountability Office suggests that delays are almost inevitable. He concluded that every element of nuclear modernization “Face the prospect of delays” due to limitations in labor, infrastructure and supply chain.