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How Will America’s Next-Generation ICBM Improve Nuclear Deterrence?

Secretary Deborah Lee James

(The Cipher Brief) – The only remaining U.S. ICBM, the Minuteman III, entered service in 1970. While upgrades have extended the life of the Minuteman III program, the missiles themselves, silos, and command and control systems are all in need of modernization. The Air Force’s Ground Based Strategic Deterrent program will replace these missiles and modernize their facilities to modernize the U.S. ICBM nuclear deterrent. The Cipher Brief spoke to former Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James to learn more about why this new program is necessary to U.S. national security and how the current fiscal environment could affect this and other Air Force programs.

The Cipher Brief: What will be the role of the new Ground Based Strategic Deterrent for U.S. national security?

Deborah Lee James: The role of the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent is to replace what is today’s aging Minuteman ICBM system. Backing up for just a moment, deterrence, nuclear deterrence has been a bedrock of U.S. national security for decades. The land-based component, namely the ICBMs, are what is referred to as the reliable and responsive force, underscore the word responsive, which is designed to deter any potential adversary from even thinking about a first strike and to complicate a potential adversary’s decision-making process. That’s the basic idea. I said underscore elements of responsiveness because then you have your other two legs of the triad: the bomber force which is designed to be flexible, it can be recalled and it’s dual-purpose. It can also be conventional. Then there are the submarines which are considered the most survivable. You have responsive, flexible, and survivable. That’s our triad, and it’s been important for decades. It’s going to remain important for decades to come.

TCB: The nuclear triad was a solution to a Cold War defense problem and ICBMs were integral to the triad. Looking into the future, why do we still need ICBMs?

James: I believe that we do. I believe that each leg of the triad brings something a little bit different, and the totality of the triad presents that complexity to the potential adversary, which is important to the security of the United States and our allies. Although it was conceived in this period of our history known as the Cold War, it was also conceived principally with certain powers in mind, and Russia was one of those powers. Russia is still very much there. They are modernizing their nuclear forces at a fast rate. That’s what we judge from our intelligence community, and so I believe it’s very important to continue to modernize ours. Without modernization, the deterrent factor is not credible. Credible means both we and a potential adversary have to believe that it will work, and it will work reliably. To the extent these systems age out, you can’t guarantee that they’ll work, and that means it’s not credible. It is crucial that we continue to have them and modernize them.

TCB: What are some of the technical improvements of the GBSD over the Minuteman III?

James: The first point I will tell you is that, unlike in the past when modernization programs for nuclear programs were piecemeal, this time the GBSD is going to be modernized as a total weapons system. What I mean is we will upgrade the three key parts in the entirety of the system in a coherent, unified way. That is to say, the missile itself number one, number two is the weapon system command-and control functionality, and three is the actual ground system infrastructure that houses it. If you take these one by one, we know what the parameters of what the system of the future will look like – perhaps not all the specifics, but the parameters. For example, the propulsion system will certainly be upgraded, the existing guidance system will be upgraded and improved. When it comes to command and control, the new system will be designed to increase flexibility and have the ability to more quickly retarget the missiles, which ultimately gives the president more options and decision space.

When you look at the ground infrastructure, by that I mean the launch silos and the control centers, those need to be upgraded for some basic things like mitigating water and corrosion intrusion. We need to refurbish the concrete and steel which are continuing to degrade little by little due to age. Overall, those three components will be modernized as a total package, keeping in mind the future need to always increase security and to try to think up front about sustainment costs, so we can make sure they are more affordable as we go into the future.

TCB: Thinking about the nuclear arsenal in peacetime, a major concern a lot of people have is the security of these facilities. How does security factor into the modernization program?

James: The security aspects are constantly under review and they are constantly being improved. There are mechanisms on the ground to support security. We have mechanisms in the air to support security. The Air Force is undergoing a competition as we speak to replace aging helicopters which would transport a response force to the missile field if they were required to do so.

As we look to the future, cybersecurity is primary. The systems of today are relatively secure simply because they are so old. They don’t depend on the internet in any way, but the systems of the future will have more software, they’ll be of course up to date and cybersecurity will be extraordinarily important. Security is primary.

TCB: Over the next few decades, the Air Force has to modernize three programs as part of America’s strategic nuclear deterrent force: the B-21, the GBSD, and the Long Range Standoff Missile, not to mention acquire thousands of F-35s and a new fleet of fuel tanker aircraft. Where does the GBSD fit into this list of budget priorities, and is the current budget plan sufficient to keep the GBSD program on track?

James: During my period of service we always said and believed nuclear was No. 1, and it had been delayed year after year, and we said we needed to get on with these important nuclear modernization programs. Every new administration does a Nuclear Posture Review. They set their own priorities, but it is my hope that nuclear will remain No. 1 and that they will proceed similarly with these important programs and make them a priority.

As you point out, there are many important programs that the U.S. Air Force is sponsoring and that we need for the future. It’s not just nuclear, it’s also conventional. The budgets are tight, and so it comes back to this idea that sequestration needs to be lifted and additional resources need to be provided to defense. I’m appreciative of the fact that the [Trump] Administration has proposed increases over what the Obama plan would have been. Congress, at least the key committees that have marked up so far, appear to be going even higher, but I come back to basics: what about sequestration? None of this is going to happen unless they can make some kind of deal, whether it’s deal for a couple of years or it’s a total lifting of sequestration. This must happen, and I’m still not seeing movement toward that. That is worrisome to me.

Lastly, I will tell you that with respect to the actual budgeting for the GBSD in the next several years, my memory is that it was fully funded over the five-year plan, but the big question mark is was it the right amount of dollars that we put in. That is going to remain a question mark because the data that was used to put together these budget estimates is based on best estimates from decades ago. You have to think of it as a best estimate. It’s going to be continually revised. My guess is when the contract is awarded on what is called the technical maturation and risk reduction, I believe that is on track for fourth quarter of FY ’17 or thereabouts, that will give us the most up-to-date budgetary projection that can then be put into the net five year plan. My point is whatever is in the budget today is a best estimate and is going to be revised – I suspect – multiple times.

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