New Generation of ICBMs Means Nebraska Will Continue to Be ‘Nuclear Sponge’
Steve Liewer / The Omaha World-Herald
(September 27, 2020) — In the unhappy event that the world’s nuclear powers cut loose with their atomic weapons, Nebraska would become an especially hellish place.
That’s because the Cornhusker State is one of a handful in the West and Midwest whose role in Armageddon is to soak up an unfathomable first strike of Russian bombs.
Under the weird logic of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD), the 450 Minuteman III missile silos containing 400 nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles in Montana, North Dakota, Wyoming, Colorado and western Nebraska are meant to be sitting ducks for any first strike by Russia, or any other potential adversary.
“The specific mission of the ICBMs is to be a nuclear sponge,” said Tom Z. Collina, director of policy for the Ploughshares Fund, a group dedicated to eliminating nuclear weapons. “They’re sitting in their silos. Their only purpose is to be a target.”
Today, the nation is once again at a nuclear crossroads. Tensions between the US and Russia, its biggest nuclear adversary, have simmered to a boil since 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine (a US ally) and used proxies to occupy the eastern part of its territory.
Russia has begun modernizing its nuclear arsenal, and China is building one, leaving the US in a rush to catch up because almost every plane, submarine, missile and bomb is 30 to 50 years old.
In addition, the New START arms control agreement, signed by the US and Russia in 2010, expires in February. Negotiations to extend the agreement started late and have not gone far, leading to fears of a renewed nuclear arms race.
“The world has never been as dangerous,” said former Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, who also represented Nebraska as a US senator.
The modernization of the nuclear arsenal includes construction of the new Columbia-class ballistic missile submarines (replacing the Ohio-class boats), B-21 strategic bombers (replacing the B-1, B-2 and some B-52s), and the new “ground-based strategic deterrent (GBSD),” an ICBM to replace the Minuteman III.
Cost estimates exceed $300 billion. In Congress, the modernization has wide support in both political parties. Just this month, the Pentagon awarded defense contractor Northrop Grumman $13.3 billion to start work on the GBSD, a down payment on a $100 billion project.
Nebraska has an outsize stake in America’s nuclear enterprise. US Strategic Command, which commands the arsenal, is at Offutt Air Force Base, on the east side of the state, and 82 Minuteman III silos are in the state’s far western counties.
The silos are underground and heavily reinforced — sturdy, but not invulnerable to a nuclear strike. They’re spaced far enough apart that it would take an enormous number of bombs to wipe them out.
“I’ve always wondered why the Midwest states don’t raise more of a ruckus,” Collina said. “You’re the states that have a target on your back.”
He and others have raised the possibility of scrapping the ICBM leg of the nuclear triad and doing away with the “nuclear sponge.”
Of course, the basic idea of nuclear deterrence is that the missiles’ presence means that they will never be used.
“ICBMs would only be used in world-ending situations,” said Matt Korda, a researcher with the Federation of American Scientists’ Nuclear Information Project. “If they don’t have any purpose in post-Cold War nuclear strategy, then what is the cost of keeping them?”
The idea is that an enemy would have to expend a huge portion of its own nuclear arsenal right off the bat to destroy all those missiles, said Christopher Yeaw, research director for nuclear programs at the University of Nebraska’s National Strategic Research Institute.
America’s nuclear defenses should be so formidable that attacking them would be unthinkable.
“Several hundred to 1,000 nuclear strikes to the heartland of America is something that an adversary really could not contemplate,” said Yeaw, who advises StratCom leaders on nuclear policy.
Since the 1960s, Russia and the US have relied on a three-legged nuclear triad of land-based ICBMs, gravity bombs dropped from bombers and nuclear-tipped missiles that can be launched from submarines at sea.
The ICBMs are valued because they are instantly ready and are a massive target for an enemy to overcome. The air leg is highly flexible because the planes can fly anywhere but can also be called back. And the sea leg is both mobile and well-hidden, the sub-based missiles impossible for a foe to detect and take out in a first strike.
“The whole concept of the nuclear triad was constructed to give us offensive capabilities with options — to present to our enemy a more confusing pattern as to where we could strike,” Hagel said.
Each leg, proponents say, reinforces and bolsters the two others.
“I can’t imagine how we could respond without all three legs,” then-StratCom commander Gen. John Hyten, now vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told The World-Herald in 2018. “They have to strike fear into the hearts of our potential adversaries.”
Collina and others say the ICBMs have outlived their usefulness. The nuclear sponge, they say, is too dangerous and expensive to maintain. The air- and sea-based legs of the triad offer more than enough firepower to destroy any enemy that would dare to attack the US
“If you remove all the ICBMs, we would be safer than we are today,” Collina said.
He and Korda fear an accidental nuclear war because of the speed with which a president must launch the missiles if sensors detect an incoming strike.
“The president would have only a couple of minutes to decide before they are destroyed,” Korda said. “The risk of miscalculation is very high.”
“The point of deterrence is if you attack us, we will devastate your country,” Collina said. “That invites the nightmare: that we might start a nuclear war by mistake.”
There were several close calls during the Cold War. But Yeaw said StratCom’s network of sensors — in the air, on land, at sea, even in outer space — is so vast and so much better now that an incoming attack would be unmistakable.
“These kinds of issues, they make great movies,” Yeaw said. “But there’s a whole chain of things that have to happen. There’s no hair trigger. In reality, these guns are locked in their holsters.”
He believes that doing away with the ICBMs and the nuclear sponge would actually be more dangerous. A potential adversary might be tempted into a preemptive strike because it could deal a crippling blow by taking out three air bases and two submarine bases.
“The calculus has now shifted grossly in favor of the adversary,” Yeaw said.
Hagel said the military should often reexamine its nuclear doctrine and make sure that it doesn’t harden into dogma.
But he, too, believes that the ICBMs are worth keeping, at least for now. Most importantly, nuclear war must remain unthinkable.
“If there’s a nuclear exchange, there’s not going to be a winner,” he said. “More than Nebraska and Wyoming and North Dakota are going to suffer.”
Yeaw would like to retire the “nuclear sponge” metaphor because the whole idea of the triad is to prevent that awful day from ever happening.
“Rather than thinking of it as a sponge, think of it as a sword or a shield,” he said, adding that Nebraskans should be proud of helping to prevent Armageddon for 75 years.
“It is a great opportunity to play that role for America,” he said. “To hold that shield.”
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