NPR Story
3:29 pm
Wed July 30, 2014

Should America Keep Its Aging Nuclear Missiles?

Originally published on Thu July 31, 2014 11:09 am

Sixty feet beneath western Nebraska, Lt. Raj Bansal sits in front of an ancient-looking computer console used to monitor 10 nuclear missiles.

Everything in this command bunker feels outdated, including the tiny toilet. It's working today, but like a lot of equipment down here, it doesn't always. Bansal points to a drain under the command post.

"At some point, sewage has flooded this bottom area," he says. "It smells awful."

For decades, the United States has kept hundreds of nuclear-armed missiles on alert. And just like the dated command consoles and the plumbing, the missiles are aging.

In coming years, the entire system must be replaced. That is leading some to ask what purpose these powerful weapons serve in the modern era.

"The mission of the Cold War is gone," says Bruce Blair, the co-founder of Global Zero, a group committed to the elimination of nuclear weapons.

Back then, these missiles were kept pointed at the Soviet Union, which had its own weapons pointed back at us. These days, we're more concerned about countries like China, Iran and North Korea. And Blair says these missiles don't threaten those countries for one simple reason: "In order for those land-based forces in the plains of the United States to be used against a country like North Korea, China or Iran, they would have to overfly Russia."

Missiles fly in a straight line, and the trajectory to almost every conceivable target goes north toward the Arctic and then down across Russian territory.

"We're very leery of lobbing anything over the territory of Russia that may look like a missile attack against Russia," Blair says. "It could trigger Russia to fire by mistake and destroy our country."

The Pentagon says it is aware of the problem. But these land-based weapons aren't America's only nukes. They're part of a triad, a three-pronged nuclear defense that also includes bombers and submarines.

The Defense Department won't comment on its war plans, but if America were ever to launch a strike on a country other than Russia, it is likely bombers or subs would be used instead of the land-based missiles.

And Blair says those silos have another weakness: They're at fixed locations, making them vulnerable to a nuclear strike. To overcome that problem, missiles are designed to launch very quickly, within minutes. And once they do, there's no turning back.

"You run a serious risk of mistaken launch or some other horrendous error of judgment," he says. "The land-based rocket force is really an accident waiting to happen."

Others dispute that. Land-based missiles are vulnerable to attack, but they don't need to be launched quickly because there are hundreds of them dispersed across the country.

"No guy is going to think that he can take out the United States in a surprise attack if he has to hit at least 400 targets out there in the continental United States," says Elbridge Colby, at the Center for New American Security, a Washington think tank.

Colby thinks land-based missiles provide extra protection. Unlike submarines, they're on U.S. soil, so communications are more ensured. Unlike bombers, ballistic missiles can't be shot down.

"I want to have a nuclear force that gives me a lot of certainty and gives a message to the adversary that there's no way he's going to be able to take advantage of me. So that's the kind of insurance I want to buy from a nuclear force," Colby says.

He says buying a next generation of land-based missiles might cost somewhere around $100 billion over several years. That's actually not a lot compared with what the Pentagon spends on ships and fighter jets.

"This is a relatively small part of the cost picture; it gives you a lot of bang for the buck — actually the expression 'bang for the buck' came originally from talking about nuclear forces," Colby says. "So I think that the cost problem lies elsewhere."

Blair, who is against keeping the missiles, says that maintaining the triad of nuclear weapons systems will cost far more. The submarines and bombers also need to be replaced soon. One estimate by arms control analysts suggests that the total cost could top $1 trillion.

"Choices are going to have to be made, and I think the land-based rocket component is on the chopping block," Blair says.

Blair thinks the old missiles can find a better purpose: as a bargaining chip with the Russians, to get them to give up their missiles too.

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Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

For decades the United States has kept hundreds of nuclear armed missiles on alert. But the missles are aging. In the coming years, they must be replaced. But what purpose should these popular weapons serve in the modern era? NPR's Geoff Brumfiel recently traveled to a nuclear command bunker in Western Nebraska for a series of stories on our program. In his final story today, Geoff explores whether replacing these weapons is worth the cost.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: Sixty feet below ground, Lieutenant Raj Bansal sits in front of a computer console. He's checking 10 nuclear-tipped missiles to make sure they're working.

RAJ BANSAL: This is an actual, real-life command being sent out, which is kind of surreal to think about.

BRUMFIEL: There is something surreal about being down here. We're surrounded by old toggle switches and black telephones with cords. Everything feels outdated and I do mean everything.

(TOILET FLUSHING)

BRUMFIEL: The bunker's tiny toilet is working today, but like a lot of equipment down here, it doesn't always. Lieutenant Bansal points to a drain under the command post.

BANSAL: At some point, sewage has flooded this bottom area. It smells awful. (Laughing).

BRUMFIEL: Aging equipment is one reason morale has been low among the nation's missile forces. Things got so bad that crews were caught cheating on monthly proficiency tests. So is part of a series of reforms. The Air Force decided to give everything a facelift. This year, it will spend $50 million replacing uniforms, buying new vehicles and, yes, fixing the toilets. But at some point, the missiles themselves will need to be replaced. It's a far more expensive job and the Air Force has already started planning for it. Which raises the question, should these weapons be replaced?

BRUCE BLAIR: The mission of the Cold War is gone.

BRUMFIEL: Bruce Blair is cofounder of Global Zero, a group committed to the elimination of nuclear weapons. The missiles were pointed at Russia. Now the U.S. also worries about countries like China, Iran and North Korea. And Blair says these missiles don't threaten those countries for one simple reason.

BLAIR: In order for those land-based forces in the planes of the Unites States to be used against a country like North Korea or China or Iran, they would have to overfly Russian.

BRUMFIEL: Missiles fly in a straight line. And their trajectory to almost every conceivable target goes north, up towards the Arctic and then across Russian territory.

BLAIR: We're very leery of lobbing anything over the territory of Russia that might look like in this attack against Russia because it could trigger Russia to fire by mistake and destroy our country.

BRUMFIEL: The Pentagon says it is aware of the problem. But these land-based weapons aren't America's only nukes. They're part of the triad - a three-pronged nuclear defense that also includes bombers and submarines. The Defense Department won't comment on its war plans. But if America was to ever launch a strike on a country other than Russia, it's likely the bombers or subs would be used instead of the land-based missiles. Blair says the land-based missiles have another weakness - they're buried at fixed locations, which makes them vulnerable to nuclear strike. To overcome that problem, they're designed to launch very quickly, within minutes. But once they do, there's no turning back.

BLAIR: You run a serious risk of mistaken launch or of some other horrendous error of judgment. So the land-based rocket force is really an accident waiting to happen.

BRUMFIEL: Others dispute that. Land-based missiles are vulnerable to attack. But they don't need to be launched quickly because there are hundreds of the dispersed across the country.

ELBRIDGE COLBY: No guy is going to think that he can take out the United States in a surprise attack if he has to hit at least 400 targets out there in the continental United States.

BRUMFIEL: Elbridge Colby is at the Center for a New American Security, a Washington think tank. Colby thinks land-based missiles provide extra protection because three kinds of weapons are better than two.

COLBY: I want to have a nuclear force that gives me a lot of certainty and give the message to the adversary that there's no way that he's going to be able to take advantage of me. So that's the kind of insurance I want to buy from a nuclear force.

BRUMFIEL: Buying a next generation of land-based missiles might cost somewhere around $100 billion over several years. That's actually not compared to what the Pentagon spends on ships and fighter jets.

COLBY: This is a relatively small part of the cost picture. It gives you a lot of bang for the buck. Actually, the expression bang for the buck came originally from talking about nuclear forces. So I think that the cost problem lies elsewhere.

BRUMFIEL: Bruce Blair who's against keeping the missiles says the submarines and bombers also need to be replaced. One estimate by arms control experts puts the total costs at up to $1 trillion.

BLAIR: Choices are going to have to be made and I think that the land-based rocket component is on the chopping block.

BRUMFIEL: Blair thinks the old missiles can find a better purpose - as a bargaining chip with the Russians to get them to give up their missiles, too. Geoff Brumfiel, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.