InsideDefense.com blogger John Liang reports that Montana’s two Democratic senators are up in arms over the prospect that intercontinental ballistic missiles based in their state might be retired. Liang revealed on December 9 that Max Baucus and Jon Tester had sent a letter to defense secretary Leon Panetta two days earlier decrying the prospect that all 150 missiles at Malmstrom Air Force Base might be removed from service in the event of budget sequestration. That possibility was raised by Panetta in a November 14 warning to Congress about the potential impact of sequestration. As the two senators correctly pointed out, land-based ICBMs are the least expensive part of the deterrent force, and have only recently been upgraded to assure their reliability through 2030.
Although the two senators’ letter to Panetta was undoubtedly motivated by home-state interests, it illustrates how local concerns can raise much bigger questions. A little-noticed feature of Panetta’s November 14 warning was that it cited the possibility of making major cuts to all three legs of the nuclear “triad” — sea-based missiles, land-based missiles and manned bombers. In addition to listing “Eliminate ICBM leg of Triad” as one of his budget-cutting options, Panetta also mentioned “Terminate bomber; restart new program in mid-2020s” and “Delay next generation ballistic missile submarine; cut force to 10 subs.” Collectively, these measures could result in a wholesale reduction of U.S. nuclear capabilities without any corresponding cuts by foreign nations.
Obviously, eliminating the ICBM leg of the triad would be a huge change in and of itself. The 450 Minuteman missiles deployed across the nation’s interior — 150 of them in Montana — are arguably the most stable component of the triad, and they certainly are less expensive to maintain than bombers and submarines carrying ballistic missiles. Cutting and/or delaying production of next-generation ballistic missile subs would inevitably lead to shrinkage in the most survivable part of the triad, because the Navy is running out of time to design and build replacements for the existing Trident submarine fleet before the oldest boats must be retired. Having already decided to cut the number of subs in the fleet and the number of missiles each sub carries, the Pentagon could be endangering the credibility of the sea-based deterrent if it made additional cuts pursuant to sequestration. As for the new bombers the Air Force desperately needs to build, strategists were already beginning to question whether the Kennedy-era B-52s that currently comprise most of the manned-bomber portion of the deterrent are still a believable response to nuclear aggression.
The hypothetical program reductions cited by Secretary Panetta in his November 14 warning would hit nuclear forces harder than any other part of the U.S. defense posture. That’s a worrisome prospect given the fact that those forces were already programmed to decline as the U.S. complies with arms-control treaties, and nobody really knows what the future requirements of effective deterrence will be. Having taught and written about this subject for decades, though, I can say one thing with absolute certainty: if the Pentagon phases out land-based ICBMs, cuts the size of the sea-based deterrent, and delays buying a new bomber, nuclear war will become more likely. The one thing that keeps us secure in the nuclear age is the expectation potential adversaries have of suffering devastating retaliation for nuclear aggression. If they can construct a plausible theory of how to disarm America in a surprise attack, then they have powerful incentives to do so.
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