Military Matters: Missile Issues

Did you know we're still a target for Russian nuclear missiles? Experts want to change that.

Did you know the United States and Russia have hundreds of nuclear missiles pointed at each other?

"No way," said a friend who lives near me in Oakton. "That's Cold War stuff. The Soviet Union collapsed in 1991."

Another neighbor said she didn't realize the United States still has silos in the heartland of our Great Plains states, filled with pencil-shaped intercontinental ballistic missiles — called ICBMs — that are on "launch-ready" status.

That means they can be launched in minutes.

One missile typically is equipped with three warheads.

According to Russian government figures, the Russian Strategic Rocket Forces — an independent military service branch — have 332 ICBMs that carry a total of 1,092 nuclear warheads. According to the Congressional Research Service, U.S. Global Strike Command (a component of the Air Force) has 450 ICBMs, each deployed with between one and three warheads; the U.S. ICBMs are to be reduced to only one warhead each over the next few years. These totals do not include Russian and U.S. bombers or submarine-launched missiles.

An ICBM moves like an unguided bullet that has been shot into the air, runs out of momentum, and falls back to earth.

Once launched, it can't be called back. No nation has ever developed a defense against it.

It takes as little as 30 minutes for a nuclear-armed ICBM to reach the United States after being launched from Russia. That's why the United States has plans for a quick response and for continuity of government in an emergency.

At any given time, someone could push the button and everything would blow up 30 minutes later. If U.S. commanders knew the Russians had launched, they would have to launch our missiles to prevent them from being caught in their silos.

A typical nuclear warhead in use today can inflict about 150 times the damage of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, Aug. 6, 1945, which killed 66,000 initially, according to the website atomicarchive.com

The United States has traditionally relied on a triad of nuclear delivery systems to deter attack — ICBMs, bombers and submarine-launched missiles. My thoughts are focused on the ICBMs. Their big flaw always has been that they're on hairtrigger status.

The Obama administration is searching for ways to reduce nuclear arsenals. Instead of consulting cold warriors like former defense secretary James Schlesinger, who chaired a commission on nuclear issues a few years ago, the White House now is turning to former Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, retired Marine Corps Gen. James E. Cartwright, who has called for deep cuts in nuclear arms. Cartwright, 62, who lives in Burke, favors taking deployed weapons off high alert and eliminating all ICBMs.

Oakton resident retired Navy Vice , 93, the author of " Stockpile: The Story Behind 10,000 Strategic Nuclear Weapons " (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2010) said in a July 17 telephone interview that we no longer need the land-based ICBM force.

"The ICBMs are questionable," Miller said. "The Russians know exactly where they are and can target them very easily. I would have gotten rid of them a long time ago."

Some experts say both the United States and Russia should follow the example of China, which has fielded only a few dozen ICBMs, even though it could easily have many more. A few dozen, after all, is enough to destroy the world.

Miller believes submarine-launched missiles constitute the only strategic nuclear force we need.

The 2010 Nuclear Posture Review, or NPR, a congressionally mandated study that takes place every few years, concluded that, "as long as nuclear weapons exist, the United States must maintain a safe, secure and effective nuclear arsenal."

Nothing in the NPR or in study groups chaired by Schlesinger, Cartwright and others would prevent us from disposing of ICBMs and lowering the alert threshold of remaining bomber and submarine forces.

About me: I'm an author on military topics. My current book is a history of U.S. bomber crews in World War II history, "Mission to Berlin." I've been writing for years about nuclear weapons and my belief that we need to de-alert the ICBM force.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Dwight Zimmerman July 18, 2012 at 03:40 PM
Growing up in North Dakota, I remember seeing underground missile silo installations scattered among the fields and of the Civil Defense nuclear attack survival drills. When I got old enough to understand, I realized that while most Americans didn't know where North Dakota was, Russia sure did. Surviving an attack was a pipe dream. Robert Dorr has raised some good points here and I agree that a further reduction in the nuclear arsenal should be initiated.
BDogg July 18, 2012 at 04:49 PM
This may be one of the most poorly written arguments I have ever seen. Consider these three simple facts: 1) “Hairtrigger status?” The ICBM force is on the SAME status as all legs of the TRIAD. It takes the SAME procedures to launch a ICBM as it does any of the legs of the TRIAD. 2) “The Russians know exactly where they are and can target them very easily” Now it is not a shock that a Navy advocate (Miller) pushes the Navy answer of submarines rather than the USAF defense posture with ICBMs. The Russians know where ALL of our nukes (including submarines) are and can target any of them. However “targeting” something and actually being able to hit it are two different things. To do so would mean striking over 400 targets simultaneously within seconds. 3) I understand that everyone wants to reduce nuclear weapons. A logical person will submit to you the simple fact that the ICBM force is the ONLY force this nation has strictly for defensive posture. Bombers and submarines are offensive weapons that go forward and move around to find their targets in an offense posture. If you really want to do our part to get rid of the nuclear threat to other nations, eliminate the bomber and submarine offensive threat and leave the one leg of the TRIAD that is for deterrence intact. The problem is, ICBMs don’t have pilots or sailors to lobby Congress and get their points into the political community.
Walter BOyne July 18, 2012 at 06:11 PM
Bob, I don't agree with your premise. While what you say is true about the missiles being on a hair trigger basis, aging, etc, there is an ongoing rush within this administration to unilateral disarmament that I feel is dangerous at at time when there is a new Super Power emerging but more importantly at a time when rogue states are beginning to acquire capabilities. I grant you that these might be applied clandestinely in a shipping container, but they still constitute a nuclear threat. And while SLBMs are extremely potent, they, like stealth aircraft, are subject to immediate technological compromise. Then, if all you have are SLBMs, you are out of luck. The emergence of a sane, orderly disarmed United States would no doubt be soothing to a large segment of the world, but it would be inflammatory to another. I think the image of a United States that has possessed this enormous power for more than half a century and never used it as more than an implicit threat against anyone who would strike us is a testament to a great nation. The very furthest point I would concede would be a world wide mutual disarmament of nuclear weapons at a precise time and date, with complete verification in place--an impossible task.
Michael R. Gallagher July 18, 2012 at 08:51 PM
Wow! Discussions of nuclear weapons made one's head hurt! These are really complex issues requiring a very thoughtful debate which unfortunately in our current political climate is unlikley to happen. Part of the reason for having both ICBM and SLBM systems was the greater range and accuracy of the ICBM, but as I understand it the SLBMs have essentially caught up in both range and accuracy. I think that opens the door to a reasonable discussion of the need for both. The discussion should include budget and service life considerations. We need to be smart about phasing of potential retirement options based on remaining service life of existing systems. Perhaps we could mothball one or the other and gain time before a replacement would be needed. We also need to look at the manned bomber issue. I am not persuaded that we need to spend a lot of money on a replacement for B-1, B-2, B-52 as a penetrating system. We have a money crunch and we need to do some clear thinking about the whole question of nuclear weapons and their utility against the treats we face today.
BDogg July 19, 2012 at 03:02 AM
If you think ICBMs are on this mythical "hair trigger" then please remove yourself from this conversation as you have zero understanding on the detailed process to deploy a nuclear weapon. It is the total and complete opposite of hair trigger. To say such a thing is basically saying the earth is flat. Just because people say it doesn't make it so.
Robert F. Dorr July 19, 2012 at 09:21 AM
To the citizen on the street and even to some experts (like the world-class expert to whom BDogg is responding) the term "hairtrigger" is an exact fit for what the Pentagon calls "launch-ready." The intercontinental ballistic missile force should have been de-alerted decades ago. An "inside baseball" discussion probably wouldn't work on the majority of Americans, who have a pretty good idea what "hairtrigger" means even if they're not up to date on the U.S. order of battle.
Groovis Maximus July 19, 2012 at 07:27 PM
BDogg - Wow. Did you really intend to insult Walter Boyne, author of a million books on aviation history and former director of the National Air and Space Museum? Sheesh.
Robert F. Dorr July 19, 2012 at 07:33 PM
BDogg, if you will read Walt's comment again you will see that while he disagrees on the larger issue, he acknowledges that what I wrote is true about the missiles being on a hairtrigger basis.
Chas. P July 20, 2012 at 02:23 AM
Yes, It is true that ICBMs can be launched quickly. However, to call it a "hair trigger" seems to imply that any bungling Barney Fife can fire these things off simply by hitting the wrong button and that simply isn't correct. Another reason for having so many ICBMs is that it increases the number of targets an adversary would have to strike all at once in order to prevent a reprisal strike. Yes, the Russians know where they are, but that is actually the point. One thing that Vice Adm. Miller may not realize is how cheap it is to sustain the ICBM force. For the cost of one (1) of the Navy's new nuclear submarines ($7.2 billion...and that's the low number), you could sustain the entire ICBM force out to the year 2040, and perhaps even longer. Don't get me started with what we could do with the $347 BILLION dollars the Pentagon says it will cost to buy and operate the new subs. We could have ICBMs made out of platinum and still have money left over to buy every missile crew member his very own launch silo!
Airpower July 21, 2012 at 03:43 PM
Walter "An ongoing rush towards unilateral disarmament" Really? A RUSH towards UNILATERAL DISARMAMENT?? I'm not sure you can back that up. The latest START data from March shows that the US has 1737 deployed warheads on air, land and sea platforms. This is a reduction of 53 warheads and 10 delivery vehicles from 2011 – and the number of deployed weapons is about one third of the total US nuclear stockpile (a little less than 5000 warheads). By the way, that figure does not include the thousands of warheads stored and slated for deactivation. By 2018 the US will come down to 700 launchers to comply with treaty obligations, but there's no warhead limit. What are they all for? The US nuclear inventory is a Cold War legacy that was unnecessary even then and is certainly not needed now. Who are you going to fire 500 missiles at? What target does warhead No. 1341 get allocated to?? The billions that are being spent to maintain and sustain this huge weapons complex are all wasted – at a time when the nation has no money to waste. If you need nuclear security (and I agree that for the time being, you do) 300 warheads would be more than enough for any conceivable contingency. That's not unilateral disarmament and you don't have to rush to get there – but it's certainly something you should consider.
Kevin Chisholm July 22, 2012 at 10:36 AM
I am very late seeing this discussion, but will comment anyhow. It is good to read an intelligent discussion on such an important topic. I am 56 years old and would strongly prefer to leave this world a “nuclear weapon free” one. Here is the reason: (1) we have not used them yet, (2) they cost billions to maintain and operate, (3) any ONE nation having them becomes the reason for many others to desire to have them, and, finally, (4) if we don’t have any, they can’t be used. We need to seriously engage other nations in agreements to eliminate all nuclear weapons. Then, we need to enforce the agreement. It is as simple as that. If we “target” in a treaty not just the weapons but the equipment that is used to make them and the components that are used to make them then making a nuclear weapon, as we now know them, in a post-treaty world would be essentially impossible. There are going to be a lot of contrarians on this, but I know it is true having worked as a consultant to the U.S. Department of Energy (half of which is the “Department of Nuclear Weapons”). Kevin Chisholm Candidate for U.S. House of Representatives (Virginia’s 10th Congressional) www.chisholmforcongress.com
Robert F. Dorr July 22, 2012 at 10:59 AM
Kevin, a nuclear-free world is a worthy goal. In Helsinki, Reagan and Gorbachev agreed to exactly that but it took only an hour or so for their aides to point out to both that they'd gone too far. In the real world, where vested interests are at work, including interests that support the intercontinental ballistic missile force in its current, "launch-ready" mode, dispensing with all nukes isn't a realistic goal. To reduce the immediate danger to all of us, a more realistic goal would be to de-alert the missiles. De-alerting doesn't mean disarming. If you make it impossible to launch a missile in less than, let's say, four hours, you wipe away the "launch on warning" scenario and reduce the risk of an accidental nuclear exchange. Any larger solution to the nuclear issue will be a challenge every bit as formidable as the one that may determine whether you get elected: traffic in northern Virginia.
Kevin Chisholm July 22, 2012 at 12:20 PM
Mr. Dorr, Thanks for your thoughts. Had to laugh at your last sentence! And of course, to some extent, agree. Here's to noble goals! Kevin Chisholm
RobotChicken July 29, 2012 at 01:28 AM
No one in Hampton Roads could even get to their ships,let alone Langley AFB! Place would be a giant hole filling with water before congress woke up from their nap!!


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