America’s Nuclear Missiles Make Its Citizens Less Safe

This week, the US tested ICBMs off the California coast. These warheads, which are one of the main contributors to America’s ballooning military budget, are not only strategically impractical but a threat to the lives of millions.

A deactivated Titan II nuclear ICMB is seen in a silo at the Titan Missile Museum on May 12, 2015, in Green Valley, Arizona. (Brendan Smialowski / AFP via Getty Images)

This week, the United States conducted two intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) test launches from Vandenberg Space Force Base on the California coast, 150 miles northwest of Los Angeles. Usually, these tests happen two or three times a year, when missiles usually kept in underground silos in several western states are transported to the base to demonstrate that the United States could, if it chose, use its nuclear weapons.

But for months, activists who monitor and work to critically publicize these launches have waited for one to be announced — which often happens with only a few days’ warning. The pair of tests this week were the first in over six months, since the last one, in November 2023, failed.

The test schedule has also been stymied by world affairs. In April 2022, the US Department of Defense announced that ICBM tests would be paused because of their escalatory potential in the context of the war in Ukraine. That war, and the nuclear threats that have accompanied it, continue, but without further acknowledgments of the risk-increasing aspect of the ICBMs.

Failed tests and nuclear threats are by no means the only issues dogging the program. Late last year, it was announced that the Sentinel program, which would wholly replace the existing ICBM force and originally came with an estimated total cost of nearly $300 billion, was behind schedule and 37 percent over budget, triggering a congressional review. No less than the ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, Adam Smith, published an op-ed in Newsweek suggesting the United States consider alternatives to going through with the Sentinel program as planned.

Generally, US policymakers tend to not allow considerations of affordability to limit their decisions when it comes to military manufacturing, both nuclear and otherwise. Politicians have allowed America’s military spending to balloon to almost $1 trillion, all the while childcare remains unaffordable and Medicare is privatized. There is, it seems, always more money to throw at the defense budget. But the troubles facing the program suggest that, even in the realm of defense, where government investment has been persistently, uniquely high and steady for decades, the United States may not be able to produce like it used to.

The ICBMs reflect US military considerations of the early 1960s, when they were first deployed. Since then, these missiles have waited in underground silos across the Great Plains states on “hair-trigger alert,”ready to launch within minutes. Their primary purpose has been to wait to be launched in a giant volley across the globe to take out the corresponding Russian force — or to quickly launch a counterattack before Russia’s missiles have a chance to take them out.

The ICBMs were developed early in the Cold War as a way of cutting the growing costs of war — a devastating preventive measure that, in the optimistic minds of President Eisenhower and those who surrounded him, would eliminate the need to maintain the kind of armies that had just fought World War II and the Korean War. The US nuclear weapons arsenal, now much expanded, is still touted as a uniquely effective war preventer by its supporters, despite all the evidence to the contrary.

But since then, the ICBM force has shown itself to contain a few highly consequential vulnerabilities, rendering it at least as much a liability as a strength. Once an ICBM is launched, it cannot be recalled. US ICBMs are stored in underground silos whose location is openly known (and readily available on Wikipedia). This means that anyone with enough nuclear weapons of their own to take out the entire force — at this point, only Russia — knows exactly where to aim them. This, in turn, puts a lot of pressure on the US president, the only person legally authorized to order a US nuclear strike. If the president receives word that there is an incoming attack on US ICBMs, they have only a few minutes to decide whether to launch those weapons before the point becomes catastrophically moot.

This “use it or lose it” pressure has led to some documented “near misses” — where minor errors of intelligence gathering and interpretation have nearly led to an accidental first nuclear strike by the United States. And the stakes are high: the warheads mounted on US ICBMs that are kept ready to launch in silos are, together, about eight thousand times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, which killed well over a hundred thousand people.

In his Newsweek piece, Smith acknowledged what a wide range of nuclear weapons experts have long known: the status quo of US land-based missiles, on many levels, doesn’t make any sense.

But what Smith proposed instead is telling. Rather than a true cost-saving or risk-reducing measure, he first suggested reducing the number of ICBMs kept in the field, ready to be used, which would still present substantial upkeep or replacement costs while maintaining the risk of unthinkable levels of destruction and vulnerability to accidental first use.

He also proposed keeping the missiles mobile and, perhaps more importantly, in storage when not on alert. This would, in theory, make them a moving target for incoming attacks. This could also reduce their utility as first-strike weapons — which could clarify US intentions around using its nuclear weapons and reduce the risk of accidental first use. But this too would not satisfactorily address the issue of program costs, nor the fundamental question of whether the replacement program itself is within the manufacturing capabilities of the US military industry.

It would also introduce a whole host of logistical and political barriers, not limited to the unease people might feel knowing they might be driving next to a nuclear weapon. (Although the existence of the Department of Secure Transportation, which is responsible for moving nuclear warheads between silos, means that this is already a reality of American life.) As a third option, Smith suggested taking money from the Sentinel replacement program and investing it in another leg of the nuclear triad, such as submarines. (The Naval Base Kitsap, which hosts nuclear-armed subs, is conveniently located in Smith’s district.) Eliminating land-based nuclear weapons and maintaining sea-launched weapons would reduce the risk of nuclear war.

None of these proposals, even if they were politically feasible, would amount to a meaningful improvement of the status quo, either as far as reducing the risk of nuclear war or reducing costs are concerned. But the fact that Smith is willing to suggest them in a national news outlet suggests two things: First, that the consensus that upholds the US ICBM force may be faltering. Second, and more importantly, the assumptions that have informed what’s publicly known about US nuclear strategy are far more flexible than they had seemed.

The state of play in Congress is even less realistic about the actual risks and costs of maintaining the force. Recently, Senator Deb Fischer of Nebraska introduced a bill that would require fifty more Sentinel missiles (the same ones that are over budget and behind on production) to be kept in the field, for a total of four hundred fifty. There’s no clear need this would meet, beyond encouraging a “more is more” attitude when it comes to nuclear weapons. What’s lost in this discussion is a realistic look at the actual effect that any nuclear use would have on the safety and security of Americans and the world, and the part ICBMs play in keeping that risk high.

One solution to all this would be to get rid of US land-based nuclear missiles entirely, a step that many policy experts have said would reduce the risk of nuclear war. The ICBM force has clear drawbacks, these experts argue, but no clear benefits. The economic value in terms of job creation of the industry to the cities and states associated with it is substantially less than similar investments in health care, education, and clean energy, and many of these areas are already strategizing against future fluctuations in military spending with this in mind.

In the past couple of years, with the Sentinel program underway, the war in Ukraine, and China’s land-based missiles increasingly cited as a justification for modernizing and even expanding the US nuclear weapons arsenal, these arguments for eliminating US ICBMs are less commonly heard in Washington. Meanwhile, nothing has fundamentally changed to make the United States’ land-based missiles more essential, or less of a risk.