They are the ultimate weapons of war. And they are being instructed by Cold War-era guidance systems-throwing off the Pentagon’s top-secret doomsday plans.
It was Sept. 19, 2005, and the last MX Peacekeeper ballistic missile had been hoisted out of its underground container in southeast Wyoming. Two hundred forty-two days into President George W. Bush’s second term, one of the most powerful nuclear weapons in the nation’s history was trucked off into retirement, following practically two decades on 24/7 alert.
Back then, a smattering of news headlines mentioned the silent milestone.
But what handful of folks understood then — or even in the decade since — is that the Peacekeeper’s exit from the arsenal also marked the disappearance of what the White House regards as an important factor of U.S. nuclear deterrence: A consistent potential to hold virtually all key Russian political and military targets at risk. Should that worst-case scenario play out, Washington also wishes to retain enough residual weapons to prevent any opportunistic strike by Beijing.
Even prior to the 10-warhead mega-missile retired, ideas were hatched for the Air Force to retrofit MX-like accuracy into leftover land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles, called ICBMs.
But that never transpired. Somewhat amazingly, nearly nobody’s realized.
After a string of fits and starts — marked by bureaucratic infighting and budgetary machinations — the Air Force has left its arsenal of roughly 450 Minuteman 3 missiles with a 1960s-era mechanical guidance system. As the title implies, the guidance system is a element that directs a ballistic missile towards its target.
Minuteman 3’s old missile-guidance technology is precise enough for striking some likely enemy targets. But hundreds of the missiles would have little possibility of damaging their assigned targets — Russia’s most valuable war-making materials — as top-secret U.S. nuclear war plans require, based on government documents and sources privy to closed-door meetings about military requirements.
Many of these aim points are regarded “very-hard targets” — like VIP shelters, command-and-control facilities, hardened missile silos and military storage bunkers — buried deep beneath the earth’s surface in reinforced-concrete shelters.
The difficult-to-destroy Russian facilities would be among the White House’s top priority targets, and the first to be hit, in essentially any nuclear conflict, consistent with defense insiders. The purpose: To rapidly handicap the Kremlin’s capability to cause any further damage on the United States or its allies.
That is why U.S. military commanders have assigned the bulk of these targets to ICBMs. The land-based missiles can be launched within minutes of obtaining a presidential order, in contrast to bomber aircraft (which went off alert in 1991) or submarine-based weapons (which may take hours or days to be ready for launch).
“We must demonstrate to potential foes, that if they start a war, we have the capability to win,” Defense Secretary Ashton Carter stated in a Feb. 2 speech in Washington. “Because a force that can deter conflict must show that it can dominate a conflict.”
To countless Americans, it might seem counterintuitive that even a single nuclear explosion would be anything short of catastrophic, no matter its accuracy. The truth is, when a ballistic missile is lobbed against “soft” targets like structures or persons, its destructive nuclear payload would more than make up for no matter what it may lack in precision.
But the vexing accuracy gap isn’t about targeting innocent civilians or ending the world as we understand it. If deterring war demands a capacity to limit the damage a nuclear-armed enemy could inflict, both a nuclear blast and pinpoint accuracy are considered required to disable or eliminate the hardest targets, as outlined by defense sources.
Air Force briefing slides reviewed by Fusion Laced Illusions define the Minuteman 3 as appearing 50 percent less accurate than MX was. That could suggest the difference between disabling a very hard target and leaving it untouched.
“We are no longer able to cover the targets that Peacekeeper covered, ever since Peacekeeper went away,” stated one former ICBM operations commander at the squadron and wing levels. “The math is really simple.”
This source and other folks interviewed for this report requested to stay anonymous. Several stated they were worried the delicate subject would get fixed only after being publicly broadcasted.
As luck would have it, Carter and the nation’s commander in chief, President Obama, may be oblivious that the U.S. arsenal cannot really achieve what’s enshrined in the nuclear-contingency blueprints they already have authorized, in accordance with defense sources. The promise of greater accuracy for the land-based missiles reportedly helped lay the groundwork for reductions in the 2011 New START agreement between Washington and Moscow, and many have believed the precision currently exists.
It’s feasible, oddly enough, that the Kremlin has already taken stock of the U.S. targeting deficiency. Significant information about the capabilities of U.S. Air Force and Navy ballistic missiles can be discovered in open sources and online.
As it happens, however, that at least one very important American has seen the lapse.
Adm. Cecil Haney — a four-star Navy officer who heads U.S. Strategic Command, based in Omaha, Neb. — claims Air Force ICBMs must do a better job at preventing big nuclear rivals from threatening the United States and its allies, as outlined by defense sources and government documents. He and his Pentagon desk-warrior allies seem to be trying to get the issue fixed internally, without relying on White House involvement.
Solid-state guidance technologies, commercially on the market right now, could provide ICBMs the accuracy Haney demands he requires. Supporters also bill these advanced electronics — regularly set up in commercial aircraft and conventional missile systems — as less than a third of the price of their mechanic predecessors, safer to run and simpler to maintain. Some investment would be required to “militarize” solid-state components to withstand a ballistic missile’s hypersonic flight and nuclear-blast radiation, but much of this development work has actually been completed.
The so-called Ground Based Strategic Deterrent, or “GBSD,” missile is to start replacing Minuteman 3s by 2030. Yet, the next 14 years still may not be enough time to make ballistic missiles accurate enough to meet Haney’s objectives for hard-target damage, some Air Force officials say. They themselves have postponed development and testing of solid-state guidance systems for ICBMs for so long that GBSD may go forward without it.
Unless they hustle, land-based missiles will stay incapable to disable or destroy their toughest assigned targets in a single salvo, as outlined by military insiders and official briefings researched by Fusion Laced Illusions. Top-secret U.S. war plans call for launching just 1 warhead per target as a means of minimizing casualties and unintended results, defense sources stated.
To get a perception of the scale, if just one Minuteman 3 warhead were to detonate in downtown Washington, more than 360,000 people would perish and another 620,000 would be seriously injured, based on nuclear weapons expert Alex Wellerstein. Even more untold numbers would be critically sickened by radiation.
Citing the possibilities for such a humanitarian catastrophe, James Miller, a former Defense policy chief, lately shared with the New York Times he supports more precision in nuclear arms. “Minimizing civilian casualties if deterrence fails is both a more credible and a more ethical approach,” he stated.
Peacekeeper left the U.S. arsenal soon after the Cold War concluded and as nuclear tensions with Moscow appeared to be easing. Pundits observe that 10 years have passed without discernable injury to global nuclear stability, in spite of the U.S. ground-based arsenal’s dip in accuracy. Some stress that for the United States to trigger a fresh attempt at this time to enhance ICBM precision could escalate tensions with Vladimir Putin.
Haney and his Strategic Command would not address specific inquiries about the future missile’s capabilities. But questioned about plans for GBSD at an Omaha press conference in August 2014, the four-star flag officer did point out he expects the Air Force “to make sure that we have the requirements we need now and into the future.”
That may be easier in theory.
Air Force ICBM program officials have stated they prefer to stick with a guidance system more like Minuteman 3’s. They could save revenue by meeting a lower damage probability than Haney needs, these officials argue.
But the ICBM program headquarters at Hill Air Force Base, Utah, also stands to lose jobs and power if the advanced accuracy technology is implemented. Repair personnel based at Hill keep active sustaining the old Minuteman 3 mechanical guidance units, which malfunction once every 3 years on average.
By contrast, solid state utilizes fewer moving parts and can run for 20 years between breakdowns, based on Air Force Research Laboratory information.
“I’d imagine the program office guys want to do as little as they can” to improve solid state, stated a former senior official with understanding of nuclear concerns. “[But] I think [using] the same guidance system will be a mistake.”
And then there is Boeing. The defense industrial powerhouse won a $466 million contract last June to continue its run as the Minuteman 3’s single contractor for missile-guidance maintenance through 2021.
Boeing performs the maintenance at its Heath maintenance facility in central Ohio, but much of that work also would disappear if the Air Force were to adopt solid state.
So the issue is shaping up as a argument over national security versus job stability. Haney is stated to be privately fuming.
In the background, he and his Strategic Command have demanded the Air Force negotiate for nothing less than meeting his secret war-plan needs, based on defense sources. He lately convinced the defense secretary’s staff to impart roughly $65 million into the Air Force budget for building the GBSD guidance system over the next 5 years, as outlined by those acquainted with as-yet unreleased spending information. That is a nearly fivefold increase over the service’s earlier spending plans.
The admiral also has gotten the Air Force to incorporate in a draft GBSD acquisition strategy a requirement for “accuracy exceeding that of the Peacekeeper system,” based on sources familiar with the sensitive document. The new missile’s guidance system furthermore needs to be capable of operating “at least” 17 years without failures, with “improved maintainability” and “reduced system lifecycle cost.”
That wording would might seem to set a high bar that only solid-state technologies could fulfill. But the Air Force has yet to finalize the document.
The service rejected repeated requests for interviews about the issue. Bruce Schmidt, a deputy director for strategic deterrence and nuclear integration at the Air Force Materiel Command at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio, stated in an email that it is “premature to comment” on whether the new missile would use solid state or some other technology for its guidance system.
Maj. Melissa Milner, an Air Force spokeswoman, stated the service would not focus numerous technology selections until after 2017. A final selection would be made in 2020 or later. She would not comment on the delays or their ramifications.