Phase Out America’s ICBMs

by William J. Perry, the 19th US Secretary of Defense

Russia and the United States have started rebuilding their Cold War nuclear arsenals, putting us on the threshold of a new and dangerous arms race. But we don’t have to replay this drama. The US plan to rebuild and maintain its nuclear force is needlessly oversized and expensive, expected to cost about $1 trillion over the next three decades. This will crowd out the funding needed to sustain the competitive edge of our conventional forces, and to build the capabilities needed to deal with terrorism and cyber attacks.

The good news is that the United States can right-size its plans, save billions of dollars and maintain a robust nuclear arsenal. We simply do not need to rebuild all of the weapons we had during the Cold War. Case in point, the United States does not need to build a new land-based ballistic missile or a new nuclear-armed cruise missile.

The next president should review current US plans, looking for ways to reduce nuclear dangers. If this examination leads to a reduction in presently planned nuclear programs and costs, it would be consistent with the 2016 Democratic Party platform, which states that the party “will work to reduce excessive spending on nuclear weapons-related programs that are projected to cost $1 trillion over the next 30 years.”

In addition, ten Democratic senators recently wrote to President Barack Obama, including former presidential candidate Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, calling on Obama to “scale back plans to construct unneeded new nuclear weapons and delivery systems.” A similar letter from House members warns that the nuclear plan may be “neither affordable, executable, nor advisable.”

The United States is in the very early stages of a program to build a new generation of missiles, submarines and bombers, which is likely to cost $30 to $40 billion dollars a year for the next several decades. Instead of over-investing in nuclear weapons systems and encouraging a new arms race, the United States should build only the levels needed for deterrence. We should encourage Russia to do the same; but even if it does not, our levels of nuclear forces should be determined by what we need, not by a misguided desire to match Moscow missile for missile. If Russia decides to build more than it needs, it is their economy that will be destroyed, just as it was during the Cold War.

Russia has begun building a new generation of missiles, submarines, bombers, bombs and warheads, for both their strategic and tactical nuclear forces. The Russian state media has embarked on an aggressive program to advertise, and even flaunt, these new weapons. Russia has renounced its former policy of “no-first-use” of nuclear weapons and announced that nuclear weapons could be their weapons of choice in a security crisis.

The Russian program was established during a period when the Russian economy was booming, based on very high revenues from oil and natural gas, which are primary contributors to the Russian federal budget. But oil prices are less than half of what they were a few years ago, and show no signs of an early recovery.

This extensive rebuilding program clearly has been influenced by the significant deterioration of relations between the United States and Russia. This deterioration was a direct result of Russia’s annexation of Crimea, incursions into Eastern Ukraine, and threats to the Baltic nations; but it has been heavily influenced by longer-standing disputes over NATO expansion, European ballistic missile defense deployment and American support for the so-called color revolutions.

The tense relations today are a causative factor in the present nuclear arms buildup, but they also make it more dangerous. I do not believe that a nuclear war would be started deliberately by either Russia or the United States, but it is all too conceivable that a nuclear war could be started accidentally or through miscalculation.

During the Cold War, these theoretical dangers became real dangers several times. The United States had at least three false alarms that could have led to an accidental nuclear war, and I participated directly in one of those, an experience that has deeply influenced my thinking. In each case, tensions between the United States and Russia were low at the particular time of the false alarm so that a surprise attack did not seem credible. If any of these false alarms had occurred during a period of 18 high tension, such as the Cuban Missile Crisis, we might have wrongly believed that a disarming nuclear attack was underway and responded to the false alarm by launching our Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs), thus starting a nuclear war by accident. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, a miscalculation by either Kennedy or Khrushchev could have precipitated a nuclear war, but we were spared that catastrophe by exceptionally capable diplomacy (and a lot of luck).

Our present nuclear arsenal was conceived and built during the Cold War, but we should not assume that it is the right arsenal for today’s needs. There have been fundamental changes in technology and in geopolitics these past four decades. One fundamental change is the strength of NATO conventional forces: during the Cold War our conventional forces were only a third the size of Warsaw Pact forces, and, in the early years, not qualitatively better. Today NATO has significantly stronger conventional forces than Russia, both quantitatively and qualitatively.

Another fundamental change is that during the Cold War, we were faced with Warsaw Pact forces as well as those of the Soviet Union. Today most of the Warsaw Pact nations and many of the former Soviet Republics are not allied with Russia. And certainly the West today has a commanding lead over Russia in economic strength and technological innovation. What remains the same is that Russia has a strategic nuclear arsenal essentially equal to that of the United States, and a tactical nuclear force significantly larger.

The United States does not need to rebuild its nuclear forces to match those it had during the Cold War. And yet Washington must do what is necessary to maintain a robust deterrent. The question is where to draw the line.


First, the US arsenal plan calls for new nuclear-armed submarines, which I support, assuming a critical analysis of the number of subs needed. I believe that the submarine force alone is sufficient for assured deterrence, and will be so for the foreseeable future. But as technology advances, we have to recognize the possibility of new threats to submarines, especially cyber attack and detection by swarms of drones. Our new submarine program should put a special emphasis on improvements to deal with these potential threats, assuring the survivability of the force for decades to come.


Second, US plans call for the development of a new bomber, the B-21, with improved stealth capability. I support that program (again, assuming a critical analysis of the numbers) because it provides backup should the submarines ever suffer a temporary problem that raises a question about their capability. This is not likely, but the bomber force is an insurance policy for that contingency. The new bomber would be dual capable, usable for conventional or nuclear missions, and would give us a critical new capability for our conventional forces, even if it were not necessary for deterrence.

That said, I do not support the development of new air-launched nuclear cruise missiles, which are unneeded and destabilizing. With the refurbished B61 bomb, we can maintain an effective nuclear-armed bomber force without a nuclear cruise missile.

There is still an open question as to whether the new bomber should be manned or unmanned. I believe that technically either is viable, providing that unmanned means remotely controlled. It is vital that any bomber with a nuclear mission have continuous human control, including a recall capability. That could be achieved with a remotely controlled system but not with a fully automatic system.


The third part of the US nuclear arsenal is the land-based ICBM force. During the Cold War, we leaned heavily on ICBMs because they provided accuracy not then achievable by submarine launched missiles and bombers, and they provided another insurance policy in case the sub force somehow became disabled. Today, we have quite high accuracy in both our submarine and bomber force, and we have enough confidence in them that we do not need an additional insurance policy. We do not need a “belt and suspenders” for our “belt and suspenders.”

We can safely let the ICBM force phase out when it reaches the end of its useful life, and not build a replacement missile. This would allow us to invest instead in improving our capability in irregular forces and cyber warfare, which are pressing problems for our military.

Not rebuilding the ICBM force would be a considerable cost savings (reportedly $238 billion over its lifetime), but my primary concern with ICBMs is that they could trigger an accidental nuclear war. If our sensors indicate that enemy missiles are en route to the United States, the president would have to consider launching our ICBMs before the enemy missiles could destroy them in their silos; and once they are launched, they cannot be recalled. The president would have about 10 minutes to make that terrible decision.

This is not an academic concern. As I experienced firsthand forty years ago, human errors do occur, as do machine errors. And while the probability of an accidental launch is low, we do not have to take that terrible risk anymore. We should not rebuild our ICBM arsenal.

In 2006, I joined my colleagues George Shultz, Henry Kissinger and Sam Nunn in an op-ed alerting the world to the present dangers of nuclear weapons, and calling for actions to decrease those dangers and ultimately eliminate them. For several years, the world took timely and important actions in that direction, most importantly, the Nuclear Security Summit meetings. But the sharp downturn in relations with Russia and the aggressive rebuilding of the Russian nuclear arsenal has stopped that progress. I believe that we should give high priority to diplomatic initiatives that can regain earlier momentum, but in the meantime we must prepare for our security.

I believe, sadly, that this entails rebuilding part of our nuclear arsenal, but we should do it in a way that does not aggravate the present dangers, nor burden us with unnecessary costs, and that keeps the door open to a return to reductions in nuclear arms and in nuclear dangers. Indeed, a significant success in diplomacy could allow both the United States and Russia to reconsider the kind of nuclear arsenals needed for security, and jointly scale back the new programs while they were still in their early stages.

Russia and the United States have already been through a nuclear arms race. I had a front row seat, and once was enough. We spent trillions of dollars and took incredible risks in a misguided quest for security. This time, we must show wisdom and restraint. Indeed, Washington and Moscow both stand to benefit by scaling back new programs before it is too late. As we learned the hard way, there is only one way to win an arms race. Refuse to run.

William J. Perry was the 19th US Secretary of Defense.

A version of this essay was published in The New York Times on September 30, 2016.

Photo: LGM-118A Peacekeeper missile system being tested at the Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands. "This is a long exposure photo showing the paths of the multiple re-entry vehicles deployed by the missile. One Peacekeeper can hold up to 10 nuclear warheads, each independently targeted. Were the warheads armed with a nuclear payload, each would carry with it the explosive power of twenty-five Hiroshima-sized weapons which is equivalent to around 400 kilotons of TNT." David James Paquin (attributed), public domain

"As we learned the hard way, there is only one way to win an arms race. Refuse to run" - @SecDef19.

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