In January of 2013, the Air Force announced that it was conducting a “ground-based strategic deterrent analysis of alternatives,” which is military-speak for looking at options to replace the current silo-based, long-range Minuteman III missiles, which are armed with one to three nuclear warheads and deployed across the central plains of the United States.
The Air Force analysis has been subject to some ridicule, in particular because among the options considered are underground, rail-mobile approaches that were considering during the peak of the nuclear build-up in the 1980s under President Ronald Reagan and rejected even then as too expensive.
As it turns out, even a direct replacement for the silo-based Minuteman would cost around $100 billion; the mobile approaches would be considerably more. That price is giving pause to even advocates for renewing the strategic triad of nuclear-armed submarines, missiles, and bombers.
Last week, I attended a conference of many self-proclaimed “die-hard Cold Warriors.” Speakers included Gen. Larry Welch, former head of Strategic Air Command (the predecessor of today’s Strategic Command), Johnny Foster, former head of Livermore national laboratory, and Maj. Gen. Garrett Harencak, assistant chief of staff for strategic deterrence and nuclear integration, who is responsible for the Air Force’s nuclear deterrence operations.
Given the speakers, what I discovered at the conference is somewhat surprising: the idea of replacing the Minuteman with a new missile is already widely dismissed as too expensive.