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Military Matters: Missile Issues

Did you know we're still a target for Russian nuclear missiles? Experts want to change that.

Did you know the United States and Russia have hundreds of nuclear missiles pointed at each other?

"No way," said a friend who lives near me in Oakton. "That's Cold War stuff. The Soviet Union collapsed in 1991."

Another neighbor said she didn't realize the United States still has silos in the heartland of our Great Plains states, filled with pencil-shaped intercontinental ballistic missiles — called ICBMs — that are on "launch-ready" status.

That means they can be launched in minutes.

One missile typically is equipped with three warheads.

According to Russian government figures, the Russian Strategic Rocket Forces — an independent military service branch — have 332 ICBMs that carry a total of 1,092 nuclear warheads. According to the Congressional Research Service, U.S. Global Strike Command (a component of the Air Force) has 450 ICBMs, each deployed with between one and three warheads; the U.S. ICBMs are to be reduced to only one warhead each over the next few years. These totals do not include Russian and U.S. bombers or submarine-launched missiles.

An ICBM moves like an unguided bullet that has been shot into the air, runs out of momentum, and falls back to earth.

Once launched, it can't be called back. No nation has ever developed a defense against it.

It takes as little as 30 minutes for a nuclear-armed ICBM to reach the United States after being launched from Russia. That's why the United States has plans for a quick response and for continuity of government in an emergency.

At any given time, someone could push the button and everything would blow up 30 minutes later. If U.S. commanders knew the Russians had launched, they would have to launch our missiles to prevent them from being caught in their silos.

A typical nuclear warhead in use today can inflict about 150 times the damage of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, Aug. 6, 1945, which killed 66,000 initially, according to the website atomicarchive.com

The United States has traditionally relied on a triad of nuclear delivery systems to deter attack — ICBMs, bombers and submarine-launched missiles. My thoughts are focused on the ICBMs. Their big flaw always has been that they're on hairtrigger status.

The Obama administration is searching for ways to reduce nuclear arsenals. Instead of consulting cold warriors like former defense secretary James Schlesinger, who chaired a commission on nuclear issues a few years ago, the White House now is turning to former Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, retired Marine Corps Gen. James E. Cartwright, who has called for deep cuts in nuclear arms. Cartwright, 62, who lives in Burke, favors taking deployed weapons off high alert and eliminating all ICBMs.

Oakton resident retired Navy Vice , 93, the author of " Stockpile: The Story Behind 10,000 Strategic Nuclear Weapons " (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2010) said in a July 17 telephone interview that we no longer need the land-based ICBM force.

"The ICBMs are questionable," Miller said. "The Russians know exactly where they are and can target them very easily. I would have gotten rid of them a long time ago."

Some experts say both the United States and Russia should follow the example of China, which has fielded only a few dozen ICBMs, even though it could easily have many more. A few dozen, after all, is enough to destroy the world.

Miller believes submarine-launched missiles constitute the only strategic nuclear force we need.

The 2010 Nuclear Posture Review, or NPR, a congressionally mandated study that takes place every few years, concluded that, "as long as nuclear weapons exist, the United States must maintain a safe, secure and effective nuclear arsenal."

Nothing in the NPR or in study groups chaired by Schlesinger, Cartwright and others would prevent us from disposing of ICBMs and lowering the alert threshold of remaining bomber and submarine forces.

About me: I'm an author on military topics. My current book is a history of U.S. bomber crews in World War II history, "Mission to Berlin." I've been writing for years about nuclear weapons and my belief that we need to de-alert the ICBM force.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Airpower July 21, 2012 at 03:43 PM
Walter "An ongoing rush towards unilateral disarmament" Really? A RUSH towards UNILATERAL DISARMAMENT?? I'm not sure you can back that up. The latest START data from March shows that the US has 1737 deployed warheads on air, land and sea platforms. This is a reduction of 53 warheads and 10 delivery vehicles from 2011 – and the number of deployed weapons is about one third of the total US nuclear stockpile (a little less than 5000 warheads). By the way, that figure does not include the thousands of warheads stored and slated for deactivation. By 2018 the US will come down to 700 launchers to comply with treaty obligations, but there's no warhead limit. What are they all for? The US nuclear inventory is a Cold War legacy that was unnecessary even then and is certainly not needed now. Who are you going to fire 500 missiles at? What target does warhead No. 1341 get allocated to?? The billions that are being spent to maintain and sustain this huge weapons complex are all wasted – at a time when the nation has no money to waste. If you need nuclear security (and I agree that for the time being, you do) 300 warheads would be more than enough for any conceivable contingency. That's not unilateral disarmament and you don't have to rush to get there – but it's certainly something you should consider.
Kevin Chisholm July 22, 2012 at 10:36 AM
I am very late seeing this discussion, but will comment anyhow. It is good to read an intelligent discussion on such an important topic. I am 56 years old and would strongly prefer to leave this world a “nuclear weapon free” one. Here is the reason: (1) we have not used them yet, (2) they cost billions to maintain and operate, (3) any ONE nation having them becomes the reason for many others to desire to have them, and, finally, (4) if we don’t have any, they can’t be used. We need to seriously engage other nations in agreements to eliminate all nuclear weapons. Then, we need to enforce the agreement. It is as simple as that. If we “target” in a treaty not just the weapons but the equipment that is used to make them and the components that are used to make them then making a nuclear weapon, as we now know them, in a post-treaty world would be essentially impossible. There are going to be a lot of contrarians on this, but I know it is true having worked as a consultant to the U.S. Department of Energy (half of which is the “Department of Nuclear Weapons”). Kevin Chisholm Candidate for U.S. House of Representatives (Virginia’s 10th Congressional) www.chisholmforcongress.com
Robert F. Dorr July 22, 2012 at 10:59 AM
Kevin, a nuclear-free world is a worthy goal. In Helsinki, Reagan and Gorbachev agreed to exactly that but it took only an hour or so for their aides to point out to both that they'd gone too far. In the real world, where vested interests are at work, including interests that support the intercontinental ballistic missile force in its current, "launch-ready" mode, dispensing with all nukes isn't a realistic goal. To reduce the immediate danger to all of us, a more realistic goal would be to de-alert the missiles. De-alerting doesn't mean disarming. If you make it impossible to launch a missile in less than, let's say, four hours, you wipe away the "launch on warning" scenario and reduce the risk of an accidental nuclear exchange. Any larger solution to the nuclear issue will be a challenge every bit as formidable as the one that may determine whether you get elected: traffic in northern Virginia.
Kevin Chisholm July 22, 2012 at 12:20 PM
Mr. Dorr, Thanks for your thoughts. Had to laugh at your last sentence! And of course, to some extent, agree. Here's to noble goals! Kevin Chisholm
RobotChicken July 29, 2012 at 01:28 AM
No one in Hampton Roads could even get to their ships,let alone Langley AFB! Place would be a giant hole filling with water before congress woke up from their nap!!

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