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Is it time to stop the astronomically expensive ICBM race?

Upgrading U.S. nuclear missiles, as Russia and China modernize, would cost $85 billion. Is it time to quit the ICBM race? LA Times, W.J. Hennigan and Ralph Vartabedian   Contact Reporters 30 May 17 
 The sky over the turbulent Pacific was pitch-black earlier this month when a Minuteman III missile blasted off from Vandenberg Air Force Base on a column of fire that illuminated the California coastline for miles.
The unarmed missile thundered past the outer reaches of the atmosphere, tracing a fiery arc around the globe before plunging into a lagoon at Kwajalein Atoll in the South Pacific, 4,200 miles away. The Minuteman III tested May 3 near Lompoc is a critical element of U.S. defense strategy: a fleet of intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of obliterating any spot on Earth with a nuclear blast in 30 minutes or less.

Although the flight test proved Minuteman is still capable of performing its missionmajor components of the missile and the control centers used to launch them are Cold War-era relics that have become increasingly expensive to maintain. Spare parts are in such short supply that the military has been known to pull them from museums.

At the same time, Russia and China are upgrading their nuclear capabilities. Pakistan, India and Israel continue to build new nuclear weapons and delivery systems. Air Force officials worry increasingly about the Minuteman’s ability to penetrate adversaries’ future missile defense systems.

The result is one of the most strategically complex and financially difficult challenges the Trump administration faces in making good on the president’s pledge for a “great rebuilding of the armed forces,” including the nation’s aging nuclear arsenal.

The Pentagon has begun work to replace the Minuteman fleet with a new generation of missiles and launch control centers, but the plan would cost an astronomical $85 billion, one of the most expensive projects in Air Force history.

Two defense firms will be awarded three-year contracts for $359 million each this year, with a test flight program scheduled for launch in the mid-2020s.

The tremendous expense of deploying a missile fleet capable in the long term of countering nuclear threats has spawned a debate in the American military establishment: How essential, in the 21st century, are the 400 strategic missiles embedded in silos deep under the plains of Colorado, Nebraska, Wyoming, Montana and North Dakota?

The discussion has opened for review the very essence of the nation’s nuclear defense strategy: the “triad” deployment of nuclear weapons, in submarines, strategic bombers and land-based silos, to guarantee the ability to retaliate against any nuclear strike……

Pentagon officials want to replace almost the entire nuclear arsenal, at a cost of up to $1 trillion. But no component has raised more questions than the replacement of the ICBM fleet, which critics have said is no longer crucial to preventing a nuclear war.

The argument for eliminating ICBMs is stronger than at any time in the past. Advocates of that strategy say submarine-based missiles and strategic bombers have improved their capability and are now more than potent enough to deter an enemy attack.

Former Defense Secretary William J. Perry fired the opening salvo last year, calling for phasing out the entire land-based ICBM force. He argued that its continued deployment is too costly. And with the missiles on continuous alert in order to be able to launch instantly if an enemy launch is detected by satellites and radar, a mistake or faulty warning could trigger an accidental nuclear war.

“The ICBM system is outdated, risky and unnecessary,” Perry, who served in the Clinton administration 20 years ago, said in a recent interview. “Basically, it can bring about the end of civilization with a false alarm. It’s a liability because we can easily achieve deterrence without it.”

Perry has not been alone in expressing doubts about the ICBM program, but senior Pentagon leaders have always been persuaded to keep it. Former Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel called for elimination of ICBMs before entering office and then changed his mind. Trump’s Defense secretary, James N. Mattis, questioned the need for the missiles in 2015 when he was a four-star general. But as soon as he was nominated, he began supporting a full-blown modernization of the triad.

The reevaluation of the role of ICBMs in America’s defense comes in an era when nuclear weapons are proliferating, not fading away. GlobalSecurity.org director John Pike, who has analyzed U.S. military systems and strategies for more than three decades, says critics “are gaining no traction” in calling for the elimination of the ballistic missile fleet…….. http://www.latimes.com/nation/la-na-new-icbm-2017-story.html

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May 31, 2017 - Posted by | USA, weapons and war

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