The U.S. Minuteman III intercontinental-range ballistic missile (ICBM) force faces an uncertain future, writes Mark Schneider in his recent post on DefenseNews.com.
A set of Minuteman failures in the recent years is as concerning as the exponential loss of design and engineering expertise within the Air Force itself. As Schneider warns, no one involved in the original Minuteman design is active in the program, and no one in the Air Force project office has experience in managing the development of a new ICBM. This could cause substantial problems if a major technological problem with a Minuteman missile is found.
The ICBM force is not the only OLD operationally deployed U.S. nuclear delivery system. Currently, the average age of other U.S. components of the triad is 21 years for the Trident II D-5 SLBM, 50 years for the B-52H bomber, 14 years for the B-2 bomber, and 28 years for the Ohio-class submarine.
During the Cold War, the United States replaced its weapons every 10 to 15 years. This is no longer possible unless Congress substantially increases reinvestments in the nuclear weapons complex. Even then, it will take years to reconstitute the capability to develop new systems. Currently, the United States is the only nuclear weapon state without a substantial modernization program.
The Obama Administration promised to increase investments to the U.S. nuclear weapons complex in the context of the New Strategic Arms Reductions Treaty (New START) that entered into force in February 2011. The implementation of New START will be costly and will drain additional resources from the already strained defense budget. The Administration’s proposed increase of about $15 billion in nuclear weapons spending over the next decade is modest, at best, compared to the need. Most of the money is proposed to be spent well beyond the President’s term and currently cannot be used to develop new capabilities suited for the current proliferated environment.
The Administration cannot guarantee anything, because it is Congress that has the final say in formulating the budget, not the White House. The loss of credibility in the U.S. deterrent could have grave consequences as over 30 countries all over the world enjoy U.S. nuclear security guarantees in exchange for not developing their own capabilities.