Full disclosure: I am a retired U.S. Navy Cold War submarine force veteran, but this is not a parochial plea. I am writing to urge you to work against any proposal to upgrade the United States’ land-based nuclear arsenal. In fact, I encourage you to consider eliminating that leg of the nuclear triad altogether.
Reasonable people can agree that the missile silos in North and South Dakota, Montana, and Wyoming are obsolete. The equipment is old, vulnerable to attack, and prone to malfunction and accidents. Replacing this equipment with modern technology will be expensive, and we will have to borrow the money to pay for it. Estimates for upgrading this leg of the triad alone run into the hundreds of billions of dollars.
The silos are buried in the ground, hence immobile. The silos are hardened targets. That means an incoming nuclear strike would have to burst on the ground to be effective. Such bursts would throw tons of radioactive dirt and debris high into the atmosphere where it will be subject to prevailing winds. The fallout would scatter across America’s northern breadbasket, the Great Lakes and Michigan, and beyond.
Bear in mind, not even Nobel laureate Barak Obama would ascribe to a “no first strike” policy as president of the United States. Historically, we would rely on the land-based arsenal to carry out such a strike due to their superior accuracy. The trouble is the enemies of the United States know exactly where to look to detect the launch of a U.S. first strike. They don’t even need a satellite warning system. A spy in a hotel room with a landline telephone could raise the warning.
Thus alerted, our enemies would have plenty of time to retaliate before our warheads could find their targets. Their launch would fully negate any usefulness we might obtain from striking first. Assuming we target their silos with our first strike, our warheads would arrive to find empty launchers. Our missiles, ours and theirs, would cross in the sky. Furthermore, if the enemy has committed to playing defense, their missiles would not have to be targeted at our silos. They could aim at cities, military installations, and command and control nodes, possibly preempting a second strike from us. This is why nuclear war is too horrible to contemplate.
“The only way to win is not to play,” from the movie WarGames.
If President-elect Trump also rejects a “no first strike” policy, which seems likely, our submarine- and bomber-based missile systems are accurate enough to carry out such an order. Moreover, their stealth technologies allow them to approach enemy shores and targets undetected, thereby shortening flight times and increasing the likelihood of mission success.
Upgrading or replacing our land-based missile systems is a colossal waste of money. We should phase out the land leg of the nuclear triad. So committed, we ought to be able to negotiate a simultaneous and verifiable reduction in Russian assets as well. Even without land-based ICBM’s, both countries would continue to maintain arsenals well above the level necessary to destroy each other, and the rest of the planet, too. Once we are rid of them, you can take credit for being on the right side of history as we work toward attaining a sensible size for nuclear arsenals world-wide.