On October 24, 2010, at the Warren Air Force base in Wyoming, the United States Air Force lost communication with a sizeable portion of America’s nuclear deterrent: a squadron of 50 nuclear-armed Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). In the past, this type of disruption was rare and limited to individual missiles. The broad scale of this incident, however, resulted in one of the most serious and sizable ruptures in nuclear command and control in history.
This incident comes in the midst of the Obama Administration’s effort to push the U.S. Senate to grant its advice and consent to New START, a nuclear arms control treaty with Russia, in the upcoming “lame duck” session of Congress. Given that each missile is responsible for covering a number of targets and that New START is set to further reduce the ICBM missile force, the gravity of the incident may have been exacerbated had the treaty been in effect. The 50 ICBMs that went down represent one-ninth of the U.S. ground-based ICBM arsenal.
The incident underscores the need for a robust nuclear modernization and recapitalization of the U.S. nuclear arsenal and infrastructure, which has been atrophying since the end of the Cold War. The rush to ratification may prevent the Senate from examining the full implications of this incident in the context of New START’s planned nuclear arms reductions.
The United States, alone among the world’s nuclear powers, has not been engaged in modernization of its nuclear triad. U.S. nuclear weapons are based on 1970s and 1980s designs. Originally, the planned service lifetimes were only a decade or two. By contrast, Russia and China have been upgrading each element of their nuclear triad, most notably in the area of long-range missiles. The Russians have also said that New START’s loopholes and permissive counting rules will allow them to deploy as many as 2100 warheads—well above the treaty’s 1550 limit to which the United States will certainly adhere.
Incidents such as the one at Warren may become more common if the U.S. nuclear weapons infrastructure continues to deteriorate. The Senate must ensure that the Administration requests both authorization and appropriation funds to support modernization of the U.S. nuclear forces and infrastructure and, specifically, their command and control systems prior to its consideration of New START. It is unclear to the public whether the report from the President to the Congress on nuclear modernization required by Section 1251 of the National Defense Authorization Act for FY 2010 includes specific provisions related to modernization of command and control systems. The Senate’s Resolution of Ratification to New START that came out of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee included a provision endorsing a $624 million increase for nuclear modernization in fiscal year 2011. However, this level of spending is inadequate and will not ensure a reliable, sustainable and effective nuclear arsenal into the future.
In addition to restoring and increasing the necessary funding for nuclear modernization, the Department of Defense should also conduct an internal review to see what happened. It should also convene a similar panel to the Secretary of Defense Task Force on DoD Nuclear Weapons Management. This panel should be asked to pay specific attention to this incident as well as the overall command and control of U.S. ICBM force. A similar panel was asked to investigate the source of the problem after a 2007 Minot Air Force Base incident when a B-52 mistakenly loaded with five nuclear warheads took a flight across the United States and after the Air Force accidentally shipped nose-cone fuse assemblies for Minuteman ICBM to Taiwan the same year. The Senate should wait for the task force to report before they take up New Start.
Co-authored by Owen Graham and Michaela Bendikova