The Air Force will soon request industry proposals to develop and build the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD), the nation’s next Intercontinental Ballistic Missile. The GBSD program will replace Minuteman III missiles first deployed in the 1970s and upgrade their aging launch facilities.
Russia’s and China’s aggressive nuclear weapons modernization programs prompted the Obama administration to make the long-overdue decision to procure state-of-the-art GBSDs. They should begin to join the inventory in the late 2020s and operate into the 2070s. Some persistent critics of modernizing the U.S. nuclear triad have called to delay or even terminate the GBSD in favor of another extension of the Minuteman III’s service life. Arguments for doing so do not make strategic, technical, or economic sense. In effect, a GBSD program slip or cancellation would be tantamount to a decision to unilaterally giving up one leg of our nation’s triad.
The nation’s ICBM force of 400 operationally deployed Minuteman IIIs and 45 launch centers dispersed over five states provides a unique set of capabilities to deter adversaries from credibly threatening or confidently planning a nuclear strike. Without it, an adversary would only need to attack three bomber bases and two submarine bases to eliminate most of the remaining U.S. nuclear force, thus increasing its incentive to consider a disarming first strike in a crisis.
A variety of factors mandate fielding the replacement. First, the Pentagon is rightfully concerned about the effectiveness of an ICBM designed half a century ago. Missile defenses are now more difficult to penetrate, cyber threats are increasing, and electronic warfare and directed energy weapons pose new challenges to the Minuteman III’s survivability. The need for additional targeting flexibility will also increase as nuclear proliferation continues. The 2018 Nuclear Posture Review put it starkly: “The Minuteman III service life cannot be extended further… In addition, Minuteman III will have increasing difficulty penetrating future adversary defenses.”