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Cancel land-based nuclear missiles to make Americans safer and save money

This Tuesday, a group of lawmakers raised the alarm about a dangerous and costly nuclear weapons program. While Congress rubber-stamps ever larger Pentagon budgets without asking even the most basic questions, Americans deserve to know: Do these exorbitant programs actually make us safer, and can we afford to pour endless money into them when better alternatives exist?

One of the most controversial such programs is the “Sentinel,” the Air Force’s plan to completely replace its Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) — the land leg of America’s nuclear triad — with missiles of an entirely new design. Based on detailed analysis from the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), the United States would be much safer and more fiscally responsible if this program is canceled.

Recently, the Sentinel program was revealed to be a whopping 37 percent over its original budget of $96 billion, which has triggered a legal requirement for the secretary of Defense to certify that the program is essential to national security, or face termination. Given the track record, its cost will likely further skyrocket, and the final price tag will be even more jaw-dropping — possibly over $315 billion when accounting for its full lifecycle and the new warheads needed for the missiles.

But Sentinel’s out-of-control cost is not the only reason why it should be canceled. Our analysis, first published in 2020, explained why silo-based ICBMs are not essential to national security — quite the opposite. The analysis showed that U.S. policies around its ICBMs actually increase the risk of nuclear war and put communities around ICBM bases in the unacceptable position of being military targets and the first casualties in a nuclear war.

Part of what makes ICBMs so dangerous is their vulnerability. Unlike nukes deployed on submarines or bombers, our ICBMs are fixed-in-place, and their locations are well-known to adversaries, making them sitting ducks. Fears about ICBM vulnerability to Soviet attack led the U.S. to adopt a policy of launching its ICBMs upon detection of an incoming attack, so that they would be in the air and not in the ground when enemy missiles hit. This is known as “launch on warning.”

Launch on warning requires extremely rapid decision-making. This is because, from launch, ICBMs take about 30 minutes to reach their target; factoring in time for detection, assessment and communication, it leaves the president less than eight minutes to decide whether to launch the ICBMs when an incoming attack is detected. Once launched, they can’t be recalled. The end result of any launch, even an accidental one, could be a civilization-ending nuclear war.

Chillingly, there are several historical instances of both the U.S. and USSR falsely detecting an enemy attack. A Soviet missile test and the moonrise over Norway were both mistaken for an attack on the U.S. that could have triggered launch on warning. Given the number of false alarms and close calls throughout history, we have been incredibly lucky to have avoided nuclear war to date. But how long before our luck runs out?

What’s more, current U.S. strategy explicitly sets up ICBMs deployed in Western U.S. states as a “sponge” to absorb any nuclear first strike from an adversary. This neat metaphor conveniently hides the utter devastation such a strike would wreak upon the people of Colorado, Wyoming, Nebraska, Montana, North Dakota and surrounding states. These Americans would be officially sacrificed by our government in the event of a nuclear war — without their knowledge or consent.

Recent analysis by researchers at Princeton University shows that fallout from an attack on U.S. ICBM silos would spread across the U.S., and possibly into Mexico and Canada, depending on the weather. Several million people would be impacted. Are we really safer with this kind of target on our backs?

ICBMs’ high risks and enormous potential human cost raise the question of whether these missiles are necessary at all. In addition to ICBMs, the U.S. has submarines carrying nuclear missiles that are just as accurate and powerful. But unlike ICBMs, U.S. submarines are virtually impossible to detect and thus invulnerable to attacks. The U.S. also has stealthy nuclear bombers that can be put on “high alert” and launched quickly under attack, allow more time for decision-making, and can be recalled in case of a false alarm.

Our submarines and bombers can carry so many nukes that they can devastate our adversaries, and they each possess strengths that ICBMs lack. So what exactly do ICBMs bring to the table?

Both the Pentagon and Congress have thus far failed to fulfill their legal obligation to sincerely examine whether these costly new missiles — pushed by powerful special interests — are essential to national security. But a program of this magnitude deserves meaningful oversight from our leaders, not an easy pass. An upcoming hearing organized by the Congressional Nuclear Weapons and Arms Control Working Group may finally provide some much needed scrutiny.

While interrogating our notions of security can be frightening, our leaders must ask hard questions about our choices and priorities. Otherwise, tradition and inertia rather than a sober assessment of our real needs dictates our policy.

ICBMs are a relic of a bygone era. Not only are they fiscally unsustainable, but they also perversely make us less secure. U.S. policy makers need to make some courageous choices to move us into a better, safer future. That would start with canceling the new Sentinel program and eliminating the U.S. land-based nuclear missiles.

By: Tara Drozdenko

Tara Drozdenko, Ph.D., directs the Global Security Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. She previously served as a scientist and senior official at the departments of State and Treasury working in missile defense, arms control and nonproliferation and was acting executive director of the Outrider Foundation.

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