The United States could do without its land-based nuclear weapons. At least, that’s what some experts claimed.
America’s 450 Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles are the least necessary of the country’s roughly 650 nuclear delivery systems, which also include air-delivered missiles and bombs and submarine-launched ballistic missiles.
The ICBMs form the ground “leg” of the United States’s nuclear “triad.” The 450 Minuteman III rockets, each in its own hardened, underground silo, are scattered at U.S. Air Force bases across the American midwest.
The Air Force developed ICBMs in the 1950s as a more survivable complement to atomic-bomb-armed heavy bombers. Bombers are vulnerable to air-defenses. By contrast, no existing defensive system reliably can intercept an ICBM or its independent warheads.
But there’s a downside. “Once launched, America’s current generation of ICBM missiles, the Minuteman III, cannot be recalled,” Reuters explained in a special report. “They have no communication equipment because the United States fears on-board gear would be vulnerable to electronic interference by an enemy.”
Bombers and ballistic-missile submarines, by contrast, deploy their nukes closer to the enemy’s cities, meaning the U.S. president might have a few minutes longer to change their mind and cancel an attack.
Reuters cited William Perry, defense secretary under Pres. Bill Clinton, as one critic of the ICBM’s hair-trigger posture. “Responding to a false alarm is only too easy,” Perry said. “I don’t think any person should have to make that decision in seven or eight minutes.”
Leon Panetta, one of Pres. Barack Obama’s defense secretary, also questioned the wisdom of maintaining ICBMs. “There is no question that out of the three elements of the triad, the Minuteman missiles are at a stage now where they’re probably the most antiquated of the triad,” Panetta told Reuters.