Viewpoint: Look before we launch – Study the ground-based strategic deterrent before funding it

By Gray Cox

When we can save $264 billion, we should look carefully. Especially when spending can backfire with the opposite of what we want.

For example, Congress is considering a $264 billion system from Northrop Grumman meant to replace some 400 aging Air Force Minuteman III missiles. This “Ground Based Strategic Deterrent” system (GBSD) would replace the Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) that were built a half century ago and installed in Midwestern silos. Their justification back then was to compliment the other two “legs” of the “triad” nuclear defense against the Soviets – bomber jets and Submarine Launched Ballistic Missiles (SLBMs) hiding under seas for backup.

Fifty years ago, the SLBMs were smaller and less accurate than ICBMs. This is no longer true. Submarine missiles now have all the punch and precision of ICBMs – plus the enormous advantage of being able to hide, protected, under oceans throughout the world. They cannot be taken out by an enemy who strikes first. In contrast, weapons fixed in silos can be easily destroyed in a first strike that would spread radioactive destruction across the American heartland.

In a war, the only way to avoid losing such land-based weapons is to use them first. This is why they could backfire and cause the exact opposite of what we want. The whole purpose of these weapons is to exist as deterrents so they won’t need to be used. Once they are launched, things may quickly escalate to the point of mass destruction in which everyone loses. Ronald Reagan captured the key point eloquently: “A nuclear war can never be won and must never be fought.”

But while no rational leader would start a nuclear war, there is always the danger one might start by accident. If our radar or related detection systems have a bug and make it seem like the enemy is attacking, we may feel the need to strike back. Of course, if we have time to check, we may discover the error and hold back. But this is precisely where the land-based missiles are so problematic. From launch to impact, the enemy missiles take less than 30 minutes to arrive. Take away the time to detect them and to initiate and launch our missiles and it leaves five to 10 minutes for the president to make the fateful decision to launch or lose the land-based weapons. During the Cold War these sorts of outbreaks of “Mutually Assured Destruction” (MAD) almost happened – too many times. Submarine based nukes create much less risk of accidental war.

Whoever has land-based missiles, whether friend or foe, creates the threat of accidental nuclear war. The fewer countries who have them, the safer we are. Arming ourselves with siloed missiles is like defending our homes with hair-trigger landmines in our bedrooms. This point is important: We are safer if we ourselves don’t have them even if our enemies do.

In general, we should be trying to denuclearize the world to move away from the threat of “MAD.” But in particular, we should be jumping at the chance to move away from the land-based nuclear weapons that make us less safe even when they are in our own hands.

It would seem clear we’re better off relying on other weapons – or, even better, diplomacy and the tools of peacemaking. But if there are doubts about this, let’s study it. Before launching a $264 billion GBSD that will arguably reduce our national security, let’s have Congress fund a look at the pros and cons of the proposed system.

Given Rep. Jared Golden’s role on the Armed Services Committee, his Marine experience in Afghanistan and Iraq, and his sharp eye for spending government funds wisely, he is in an excellent position to initiate legislation for a careful study. He should be strongly encouraged to do so.


Gray Cox is a professor of philosophy and peace studies at the College of the Atlantic. He lives in Bar Harbor and is a member of Acadia Friends Quaker Meeting.

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