Head of US nuclear arsenal rejects calls to scrap ground-based missiles

The head of the United States’ nuclear arsenal issued a chilling warning on Capitol Hill this week about the country’s ability to deter nuclear war.

Admiral Charles Richard, commander of U.S. Strategic Command said Tuesday that for the first time in the country’s history, the U.S. is now facing two nuclear powers at the same time: Russia and China – and he can’t do it with today’s aging stockpile.

“I cannot deter with the leftovers from the Cold War forever in the future,” Richard, told the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Some Democratic lawmakers are calling to scrap one leg of the nuclear triad – the 400 ground-based missiles currently in silos across three states, North Dakota, Montana, and Wyoming. Richard testified that he needs to replace — not update — his fleet of 50-year-old Minuteman III missiles.

“That is a 70s-era weapons system that I am going to have to employ against 2030-level threats,” he said speaking about Russia and China’s growing arsenal.

The U.S. Strategic Command (STRATCOM) commander provided an anecdote about the challenges his nuclear forces face.

“We are down to two of a particular switch that is required to go in the launch control centers,” Richard said. “Nobody knows how to make it anymore. It’s obsolete.”


In September, the U.S. Air Force announced Northrop Grumman Corporation was selected to modernize the nation’s aging Minuteman III missiles with a $13.3 billion contract for “engineering and manufacturing development” of a new missile called the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD).

In a tweet, STRATCOM warned the threat of nuclear war is greater today.

“We must account for the possibility of conflict leading to conditions which could very rapidly drive an adversary to consider nuclear use as their least bad option.”

The nuclear triad consists of ground-based missiles, ballistic-missile submarines, and strategic bombers. The U.S. stopped keeping nuclear-capable bombers on 24-hour alert in 1991. Richard says the U.S. really has a “dyad” today, not a triad.

The plain-spoken naval flag officer from Decatur, Alabama warned lawmakers that if the U.S. got rid of its 400 ground-based missiles, he recommends changing posture.

“If you don’t have intercontinental ballistic missiles, we can’t meet that criteria. You are completely dependent on the submarine leg. I’ve already told the secretary of defense, under those conditions, I would request to re-alert the bombers.”

A recent report by the Atlantic Council warned against cutting the 400 intercontinental ballistic missiles as well as reducing the number to 300 missiles as some have advocated.

“A larger arsenal of ICBMs is critical for deterring a nuclear attack. An attacker faced with fewer US ICBM silos would have an easier time disarming the United States,” the report by Matthew Kroenig, Mark J. Massa, Christian Trotti said. “Eliminating one hundred ICBMs would free up additional enemy weapons to target US cities, increasing damage to the United States.”

One nuclear expert in Washington agrees.

“We have to work to make sure that our nuclear weapons convince our enemies that the United States has the will and ability to make them regret doing anything really, really stupid,” said Rebeccah L. Heinrichs, a senior fellow at Hudson Institute where she specializes in nuclear deterrence.


A former defense secretary under Bill Clinton thinks the ground-based missiles need to go away.

“Retiring the ICBMs would save considerable costs, but it isn’t only budgets that would benefit. These missiles are some of the most dangerous weapons in the world. They could even trigger an accidental nuclear war,” William J. Perry, secretary of defense from 1994 to 1997 said in the New York Times five years ago.

A report from June of last year by the Union of Concerned Scientists said the focus of the U.S. nuclear arsenal should be with its ballistic submarine fleet, which carries 70% of nuclear warheads and “have the advantage of being essentially invulnerable to attack when the submarines are hidden at sea. Yet the United States continues to not only keep its ICBMs, but also maintain them on high alert with a ‘launch-on-warning’ option, creating unnecessary risks.”

The report also recommends discontinuing plans to build new nuclear missiles to replace the aging Minuteman III.

“The United States should continue to extend the operational life of the Minuteman III missiles and should not build the new GBSD missile.”

“You know we’re currently spending $44.5 billion a year on nuclear weapons and I know STRATCOM likes spending that money, but I don’t,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., told Richard during Tuesday’s Senate hearing. She reminded him about the purpose of the Biden administration’s ongoing nuclear posture and quoted from the report to “reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our defense strategy.”

“The entire nuclear deterrent is about 6% of the entire defense budget and the new ICBMs are peanuts inside that small bucket,” Heinrichs said. “We can afford the best insurance plan we have to protect the American people and our way of life.”

At the hearing, Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., called the idea of getting rid of nuclear weapons a “fanciful idea.”

“We hear from some misguided and misinformed people on the left who might want to eliminate a leg of our triad or eliminate the entire nuclear forces,” Cotton said. “We have used them every single day for 76 years to deter another war like the terrible wars of the first half of the 20th century.”

In his annual address to the nation, Russian President Vladimir Putin boasted Wednesday that Russia will have modernized over 88% of its nuclear weapons by the end of this year.


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