As the first nation to develop atomic weapons, the United States has long enjoyed its status as among the premier nuclear powers on the globe, second in total nuclear weapon count only to its Cold War-era competitor, Russia (formerly the Soviet Union). Within the United States, Americans tend to assume that America not only possesses the most capable weapons but the most powerful and advanced — unfortunately, however, in the nuclear arena, none of that is true.
As SOFREP recently covered, America’s dated nuclear arsenal, although still frighteningly powerful, has lost the lead in nuclear weapon development to its competition in Russia and China. Much like hypersonic missile technology, long-range artillery, the narrative facets of hybrid warfare, and more, America’s two-decade-long investment into counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency warfare has drained the force of its ability to keep pace with lesser funded competitors that have not had to invest in the same breadth of continuous combat operations. In a nutshell, America’s military simply stopped emphasizing the development of new weapons platforms as it focused on fighting terrorism, and its opponents were given the opportunity to watch the U.S. military operate, and pursue technologies based on where they felt they could best counter America’s combat tactics.
As a result, both Russia and China have unveiled new nuclear-capable intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) in the past few years, and the new weapons touted by each nation positively dwarf the destructive capacity of America’s aging Minuteman III missiles, which have seen updates but no replacements since the 1970s. The argument has been made that America’s overall nuclear strength still serves as deterrent enough and that further investment into the program is unnecessary when the use of nuclear arms in a national level conflict would almost certainly mean the end of humanity regardless of the individual yield of outbound warheads — but the point of developing new and more capable platforms isn’t really about delivering even greater levels of destruction (though in all likelihood, America’s new ICBMs will need to carry quite a bit more oomph than its current missiles), the real point behind these new missiles is all about the likelihood that they’ll reach their intended target. A high likelihood of success is absolutely integral to an effective deterrent strategy.
Because the vast majority of missile defense systems now employed by America’s competitors were developed after the Minuteman III came into service, it stands to reason that they were developed with America’s nuclear arsenal in mind. By logical extension, that means America’s dated nukes likely have a higher probability of being intercepted than Russia’s RS-28 Sarmat or China’s DF-41, both of which were developed with America’s three-tiered missile defense apparatus specifically in mind, and both employ a variety of tools aimed at countering or inhibiting the efficacy of kinetic intercepts of the sort America utilizes. In short, America needs ICBMs that are just as capable of beating missile defense systems in order to maintain the status quo we’ve come to know as mutually assured destruction.
With dated ICBMs, the destruction remains assured, but there would be questions pertaining to just how mutual it would be. America could launch more than enough nukes to inundate and overwhelm any nation’s missile defense systems — but the highest value targets would likely be saved as the target nation prioritized its defensive endeavors. America needs to ensure it can match the destructive capacity of its competitors in a singular launch precision strike (no matter how unlikely that may be) or in a full-scale nuclear war in order to maintain a solid footing in the nuclear staring contest that is this sort of posturing.
Armed with that understanding, the Air Force recently awarded technology maturation funds to both Northrop Grumman and Boeing — both of whom are already at work developing their bids at the next generation of American nuclear ICBMs, which the Air Force is calling the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent, or GBSD. These new missiles are expected to reach testing phases in the early 2020s, with plans to have a winner chosen and fielded in silos around the country by the end of that decade. While the Air Force has not addressed the expected yields of these new weapons, they have pointed out that they will be equipped with significant upgrades in targeting and guidance abilities as well as the overall durability of reentry vehicles.
“GBSD will provide a safe, secure and effective land-based deterrent through 2075,” Capt. Hope Cronin, Air Force spokeswoman, told reporters. The company that secures the contract to build the next generation of American ICBMs will be tasked with building as many as 400 of the new platform.
Featured image: Airmen from the 90th Missile Maintenance Squadron prepare a reentry system for removal from a launch facility, Feb. 2, 2018, in the F. E. Warren Air Force Base missile complex. The 90th MMXS is the only squadron on F. E. Warren allowed to transport warheads from the missile complex back to base. Missile maintenance teams perform periodic maintenance to maintain the on-alert status for launch facilities, ensuring the success of the nuclear deterrence mission. | U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Braydon Williams