Mitchell Institute Says GBSD Contracts Put Nuclear Modernization Back on Track

A 90th Missile Security Force Squadron Humvee patrols the F.E. Warren AFB, Wyo., missile complex on Feb. 9, 2016. Air Force photo by SrA Jason Wiese.

With the Air Force announcement last week of two design contracts to replace the Minuteman III ICBM system, “the United States is back on track to modernize its entire nuclear deterrent,” wrote retired Lt. Gen. David Deptula, dean of AFA’s Mitchell Institute, and Peter Huessy, director of strategic deterrent studies at Mitchell, in an op-ed for The Hill on Sunday.

The maturation of the new Ground Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD) program signals the end of what the authors call “a misguided nuclear procurement holiday” for the US military since the end of the Cold War. During that time, Russia and China have actively upgraded their own nuclear forces with an eye to outpacing American capabilities, Deptula and Huessy wrote, and “in light of these strategic realities, it is imperative that America fully modernize its own nuclear deterrent.”

Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee, disagreed.

“We should not be doubling down on these legacy nuclear modernization plans,” Smith said in a statement released Sunday on the GBSD and Long Range Standoff weapon recapitalization efforts. Smith said the programs, which together will cost the Air Force nearly $2.5 billion in technology maturation and risk reduction contracts, are too expensive and “could undermine strategic stability and fuel another arms race.”

He believes that money would be better spent on “serious unmet needs for theater missile defenses that work, cutting-edge cyber capabilities, and conventional weapons that will respond directly to the military challenges we are facing right now” from nations like North Korea.

But Deptula and Huessy noted the GBSD program will cost only “about two percent of the USAF budget” over the next 10 years, and its enhanced survivability will sustain strategic stability with key US adversaries.

For one, the geographical spread of the US ICBM program, across several vast western states, makes it very difficult for an adversary to destroy all the missiles, thereby discouraging attempts to do so.

They also said the new GBSD missiles will require “two warheads to effectively take out each missile silo,” another deterrent enhancement.

The new missiles will also be “more flexible and modular” than previous ICBMs, making it easier for the US to match adversary developments and keep the new system in the field “for the better part of five decades,” Deptula and Huessy wrote.

“Land-?based ICBMs have played a key role in the nuclear deterrent peace of the past 70 years” since World War II, according to the op-ed, and modernizing the force means they will continue to play that role well into the future.