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Decision on Minuteman to shape US nuclear policy for decades


WASHINGTON – The Mintman missile was armed and ready for 50 years of nuclear war at a moment’s notice. It has never been launched into battle with its underground silos, but this year it became a major target in a broader political battle over the status and cost of the country’s nuclear arsenal.

The Minuteman was not intended to last for half a century, so it is overdue to replace or renew it. Some see it for a moment as a push to completely scrap it, dropping one leg of the traditional nuclear “triad” – weapons that can be launched from land, sea, and air. Most people in Congress are in favor of having a land-based foothold by replacing the Minuteman with a new missile; The position of President Joe Biden is not yet clear.

The results of the fighting will advance nuclear policy and strategy for decades to come. This may affect how America’s allies in Europe and Asia view the credibility of America’s nuclear “umbrella” – the safety net that allowed most of them to develop their own nuclear weapons. Some argue that it can differentiate between war and peace in an era of growing Chinese military power.

Navy Adam Charles. Charles Richard is in charge of nuclear war planning as head of the US Strategic Command. Minutman states that Air Force technicians have to perform magic to keep it fully functional while facing severely limited spares such as components. Missile launch switch.

“I’m afraid there’s a point where they won’t be able to get the rabbit out of the hat and the system won’t work,” he said at a House hearing on 21 April. A reporter later asked if he meant the Minutman to be unreliable, Richard said it was safe and reliable for now but there was “no further margin” for delay in changing it.

Stephen Schwartz, a non-senior fellow in the Bulletin of Nuclear Scientists, says Richard’s statements are a reminder of the alarming claims made during the Cold War about the need for new weapons.

“Time and again, authorities have warned us ‘the sky is falling,’ and that’s never true,” Schwartz said. “Congress should critically examine the historical record and apply some healthy skepticism to such testimony.”

Richard praised in Congress a bipartisan push to preserve and modernize the entire nuclear arsenal at a cost, depending on how you define it, over $ 1 trillion. Opponents include a former defense secretary, William Perry, who has become a vocal critic of the Minutemen. The current leader of the Pentagon, Lloyd Austin, has been publicly non-controversial on the Minuteman, but favors the preservation of the nuclear triad.

The consensus in Congress is that age is destroying three main pillars of US nuclear power – long-range bomber aircraft such as the 1960s B-52s, submarines equipped with trident ballistic missiles, and Minutman Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles, or ICBMs. There is relatively little opposition to the construction of new generation bombers and submarines. The most controversial debate is over whether, when and how to replace Minuteman.

Arguments on the Minuteman boil down to this: given its age and the nuclear challenges posed by Russia and China, should it be phased out in favor of a new generation ICBM? Or should it be renewed at a lower cost to replace later? Or should it be phased out, period with no replacement?

This debate reveals a long-standing American schism. On the one hand, the idea that the United States or its allies are indispensable to the ICBMs strategy to prevent any adversary from attempting a nuclear attack. An important part of the argument is that the ICBM acts as a “warhead sink” or sponge to absorb the first blow in nuclear warfare in its 400 underground silos in the five Great Plains states; The rationale is that an attacker would need to spend so many weapons to destroy these silos that he would see a very low probability of winning and thus would be prevented from attacking in the first place.

The opposing view is that ICBMs are overkill, given the large amount of firepower in the more elusive sea and air-based sections of the nuclear arsenal, and that ICBMs make nuclear conflict more likely as a US president to launch one Can be forced. Warning of an attack that turned out to be a false alarm. Once launched from its silo, an ICBM cannot be recalled.

These differences are more pronounced in light of the expected stable defense budget.

Among those eager to succeed Minutman, some see political opportunities in their occasional slipups. For example, when a routine flight test was aborted shortly before launch last week, Rep. Don Bacon tweeted that the incident was evidence that Minuteman had to “before it’s too late “Should be modernized, although the Air Force has not yet determined what causes the miscarriage. . Bacon is a Republican from Nebraska – Strategic Command Headquarters and home to some Minuteman silos.

Biden has not publicly addressed the issue. In March, the White House issued interim national security guidance promising to “take steps to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in national security strategy”, but provided no details.

As a candidate in 2019, Biden said he believed the nuclear arsenal could be modernized for less than the estimated $ 1 trillion price tag, but it was not specific. Some interpreted this as skeptical of the need for a new ICBM, but thus far his administration abandoned the inherited plan to replace the Minuteman with a successor named the ground-based Strategic Deterrent starting in 2029. Has not given any indication.

Last September, Northrop Grumman won a $ 13.3 billion contract to develop a successor. The estimated cost of fielding the entire system is $ 95 billion, which increases the continuation cost by counting $ 264 billion over the estimated lifetime of the weapon in the 2070s.

Signs of the Biden administration’s nuclear path in the 2022 budget may be presented to Congress soon. The Pentagon also plans a formal review of its nuclear “posture”, which would confirm the need for nuclear modernization but cannot decide other details.

Representative John Garmendi, a Democrat from California, does not agree with the argument that the Minuteman is so old that life cannot extend – a renewal to keep it in service for decades to come.

The head of the Strategic Command, Richard said, “changed into a warm pose with Garamendi last month.”

Richard says that there is no room for delay. But a new report from the Government Accountability Office states that the delay is almost inevitable. It concluded that each part of nuclear modernization “faces the possibility of delays due to limitations in the workforce, infrastructure and supply chain”.

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