The fate of Western
Civilization may hinge on the great debate now
raging within Washington’s
beltway, virtually unnoted on nightly news and
unknown to most Americans, over whether to
replace the nation’s 400 obsolete Minuteman III
intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) with
a new ICBM — or unilaterally eliminate all U.S.
“Surprise Attack: ICBMs and the Real Nuclear
Threat” (October 31, 2020) warned: “A Biden
Administration or future Democrat Congress is
likely to unilaterally abolish U.S. ICBMs … to
the grave detriment of U.S. national security.”
arithmetic is more real and easier to understand
than the alleged existential threat from climate
change. Subtract 400 credible ICBMs from the
U.S. nuclear deterrent, and Russia, China, and
even North Korea or Iran, could do a nuclear
Pearl Harbor, by making a surprise attack on 3
U.S. strategic bomber bases and 2 ballistic
missile submarine (SSBN) ports—just 5 targets
Deterring this scenario
since 1970 is the Minuteman III ICBM, now 50
years old, originally designed to last 10 years,
nearing end of its last possible life extension
program. Minuteman still stands guard, ready to
launch in minutes responding to a surprise
attack — unlike U.S. nuclear bombers or
ballistic missile submarines.
U.S. bombers are not
maintained nuclear-armed or on strip-alert and
so would be destroyed in a surprise attack.
Surprise attack on just
two ports would destroy two-thirds of 14 U.S.
SSBNs normally berthed, while the three-four
SSBNs normally on patrol at sea would require
hours to respond to an Emergency Action Message
(EAM) ordering them to launch missiles.
Hours can become forever
in a nuclear war that kills the National Command
Authority, uses electromagnetic pulse (EMP) to
fry communications links for transmitting EAMs,
and unleashes decades of enemy planning and
secret weapons designed to destroy the small
number of U.S. SSBNs hiding at sea.
The comfortable notion
that U.S. missile submarines are “invulnerable”
almost certainly underestimates the awesome
power of nuclear weapons, and other adversary
capabilities, to destroy and disrupt at least
EAM communications links that make SSBNs a
viable deterrent. Is it really possible for a
nation to absorb a nuclear surprise attack, and
then respond via SSBNs?
The question is yet
unanswered. But we may well soon find out if
U.S. ICBMs are junked, while Russia, China and
North Korea continue their one-sided nuclear
arms race building new ICBMs.
If surprise attack is
the most likely nuclear threat, then the most
important part of the U.S. nuclear deterrent,
the only part that may matter in deterring or
responding to surprise attack, are the ICBMs and
their 400 ever-ready warheads.
and activists see the greatest virtue of ICBMs —
their capability for over 95% to be on
high-alert, every day, for years, serving as
sentinels against surprise attack — as the very
reason to abolish ICBMs, that they falsely
allege are on a “hair trigger” for accidental
Yet no ICBM has ever
been fired accidentally. In addition to numerous
redundant safeguards preventing accidental
launch, U.S. ICBMs are “detargeted” — aimed at
broad ocean areas — but can be quickly
retargeted against adversaries when needed.
The U.S. has even
“de-MIRVed” its ICBMs so each carries only one
warhead, not multiple warheads like those of
Russia, China, and soon probably North Korea,
that are optimized for striking first to disarm
the U.S. nuclear deterrent by surprise attack.
For example, Russia’s
SS-18 and China’s DF-41 ICBMs carry 10 MIRVed
warheads, so just 50 of these missiles could
deliver 500 warheads in 30 minutes to attack all
U.S. ICBM silos, bomber bases, submarine ports,
and other military targets. Russia’s new Satan
II ICBM can carry up to 40 warheads.
Unlike U.S. ICBMs, the
ICBMs of Russia, China, and North Korea are on a
“hair trigger” and do pose a threat of
accidental nuclear war because of profound
differences between the U.S. and these
totalitarian states in strategic posture and
strategic culture. U.S. ICBMs are the most
important factor deterring these malevolent
actors from surprise attack.
trends in nuclear weapons development such as
Super-EMP, hypersonics, super-accuracy, and
ultra-low-yield promise adversaries quick, very
low-casualty, environmentally-clean, surgical
victory in a nuclear war. The “unthinkable” is
becoming increasingly “thinkable” and someday
soon may be irresistible.
Democrat-Republican strategic consensus that won
the Cold War still existed, we would and should:
• Harden the Triad and strategic command and
control against Super-EMP weapons;
• Resume nuclear testing to develop new
generation specialized, clean,
ultra-low-yield nuclear weapons;
• Protect ICBM silos, bomber and submarine
bases against hypersonic warheads with
• Deploy space-based missile defenses like
Brilliant Pebbles to shift arms racing away
from Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) to
Strategic Assured National Existence (SANE).
But none of this is
radicals, who would have lost the Cold War, are
moving the White House and congressional
Democrats toward junking U.S. ICBMs. Beware a
forever “life extension program” of Minuteman
III, which will amount to “junking” U.S. ICBMs
in their silos.
Replacing Minuteman III
with a new ICBM is commonsense — but
“controversial” in Washington.
The New Cold War is already on the verge of
• Dr. Peter Vincent Pry, director of the
Task Force on National and Homeland
Security, served as chief of staff on the
Congressional EMP Commission, and on the
staffs of the House Armed Service Committee
and the CIA. He is author most recently of
“The Power And The Light” (Amazon.com).