ICBMs Are Essential to America's Second-Strike Capability

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One critical aspect of nuclear deterrence is a nation’s second-strike capability — its capacity to respond to an aggressor’s assault with nuclear arms that have not been destroyed as a result of the initial attack. America maintains a triad consisting of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), bombers and missile-carrying submarines to assure enough nuclear weapons survive to respond in kind to an aggressor. Some critics believe eliminating ICBMs would be a cost-effective solution to reduce defense spending, but this is not a safe option. The U.S. needs to maintain the ICBM component of the nuclear triad to ensure it has an array of options for deterring potential nuclear aggressors and maintaining a solid second-strike capability.

According to some critics, Minuteman III ICBMs no longer serve a vital purpose. These opponents argue that ICBMs should be eliminated because they are vulnerable and inflexible. This is not true. ICBMs definitely have a purpose: they enhance the U.S. second-strike capability by providing a third method to respond in the event of a nuclear attack.

Needless to say, bombers and submarines also have unique capabilities that strengthen Washington’s nuclear deterrent and second-strike capability. Bombers attack ground and sea targets by dropping bombs, firing torpedoes, and launching cruise missiles. The aircraft also offer flexible options since they can adjust targeting while airborne, can be withdrawn in flight (unlike launched missiles), and can be stationed abroad to reassure allies. Submarines, on the other hand, are able to patrol the world’s oceans undetected and could respond with a deadly counterattack if U.S. bombers and ICBM forces were destroyed.

It is important for Washington to maintain its ICBM force because the other two components of the nuclear triad, bombers and submarines, have potential weaknesses that may be exploited in the future. For instance, bombers are very large aircraft and must refuel, which makes them potentially easy targets for future aggressors. Secondly, even though submarines roam the world’s oceans today undetected, they would become much less useful as a deterrent if a technological breakthrough were discovered that enabled aggressors to detect their location – a fear Admiral Jonathan Greenert, Chief Naval of Operations, has called “the oceans becoming transparent.”

In comparison to bombers that can fly anywhere in the world and submarines that can wander in oceans undetected, ICBMs may be viewed as vulnerable since they remain in fixed silos. However, their fixed locations assure they remain under firm control of national command authorities, and any attacker would have to wonder whether U.S. missiles had already been launched before they were hit. In contrast, bombers and submarines are in principle free to travel anywhere in the sky or ocean, meaning their operators must be trusted to use the weapons they carry as intended.

While President Barack Obama desires to decrease dependence on nuclear weapons, that does not mean other nations will follow his lead. Nuclear deterrence is no longer focused on one nation as was the case during the Cold War. Contemporary nuclear threats include a range of non-state actors, rogue regimes, and rising powers. Russia also has recently test-launched an ICBM and has publicly stated it will begin to test a new family of warheads to place on such missiles.

Recent tension between Russia and Ukraine underscores the importance of U.S. commitments to protect its overseas friends from aggression. As a result of the 1994 Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances, Ukraine returned its nuclear arsenal to Moscow in exchange for security guarantees from Russia, the U.S. and the United Kingdom. Since Moscow has clearly violated this agreement, Kiev is dependent security-wise on the U.S. and U.K. This recent example is one of many promises Washington has made regarding the protection of allies from hostility and further underscores the need to modernize the nuclear triad. After all, doing away with ICBMs would mean reducing the nuclear triad to two legs — potentially emboldening adversaries, increasing chances of a future aggressor wiping out Washington’s second-strike capability, and undermining the credibility of U.S. commitments.

The technology to develop nuclear weapons continues to proliferate to other nations. The U.S. must modernize all three components of the nuclear triad to guarantee its relevance to emerging threats. In particular, the ICBM force should be cost-effectively modernized over time as suggested by a recent RAND study, not eliminated, to allow the U.S. to continue creating the psychological effect of nuclear deterrence that prevents an aggressor from attacking the U.S. and its allies.

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