It’s been something of an article of faith for President Trump that the United States needs to beef up and expand its arsenal of nuclear weapons in order to keep up with the Russians. This is an idea which has met stiff resistance among Trump’s opponents for reasons of both cost and a reluctance to inflame tensions between the two nations. Still, the president sounded determined to move forward with just such a plan. That makes it rather curious to see a headline this week from the Associated Press indicating that the Air Force is currently in the process of knocking down our stockpile of one type of ICBMs to the lowest levels seen in decades.
The Air Force is quietly shrinking its deployed force of land-based nuclear missiles as part of a holdover Obama administration plan to comply with an arms control treaty with Russia. The reductions are nearing completion despite President Donald Trump’s argument that the treaty gives Moscow an unfair advantage in nuclear firepower.
The reduction to 400 missiles from 450 is the first for the intercontinental ballistic missile, or ICBM, force in a decade — when the arsenal came down from 500 such weapons. The Air Force says the latest cut in Minuteman 3 missiles will be completed in April, leaving the deployed ICBM arsenal at its smallest size since the early 1960s…
It’s unclear how Trump intends to conduct a nuclear expansion, which critics call unnecessary and a potential drain on funds needed for non-nuclear forces. A long-term plan to replace and modernize the current nuclear force is already underway and will end up costing hundreds of billions of dollars.
In reality, this is all part of a program which has been going on for years and is being mirrored by the Russians. We’re primarily talking about the available stockpile of Minuteman 3 missiles which are land-based and launched from silos. The Russians are similarly decreasing their collection of land-based missiles, though most of those are mobile and launched from trucks.
But before anyone becomes too concerned over this, the Minuteman installations are only one part of the American “nuclear triad” and probably the one we need to worry about the least. We are also reducing the number of B-52 aircraft which are geared up for nuclear launch capability, but that’s probably the most antiquated portion of our arsenal and the slow reduction of those capabilities has been in the works since the 1980s. America’s real muscle in the nuclear race comes from our submarine fleet and we are still well ahead of the game there. In a worst-case scenario where the Russians (or anyone else for that matter) initiated a first strike doing massive damage to the United States mainland, our submarines would rise to launch depth shortly thereafter and obliterate our enemies. This is the essence of the policy of mutually assured destruction (MAD) and it’s served us well for quite some time.
We shouldn’t sweep Trump’s concerns about keeping up with the Russians entirely under the rug however. This 2016 article from Business Insider reminds us that there is a race going on and that Russia has upgraded their ICBM arsenal more recently than us. The RS-24 Yars weapon system which Russia now leans on is an extremely fast missile which can deploy as many as 10 independently targeted warheads after it reenters the atmosphere over the target country. We probably need to worry less about the actual headcount of missiles that we have standing by and focus more on the quality of what we have. We can modernize the arsenal without increasing the total numbers in a way which would violate arms reduction progress made through existing treaties with the Russians. Now we just have to figure out how to pay for it.