ICBMs: An Unnecessary Danger?

The Hafemeister reading focuses on different types of delivery systems for nuclear warheads. While most of the reading includes technical equations for these systems, Hafemeister does get mention policy considerations involving these capabilities, including how politicians will use some facts (correctly and incorrectly) when debating nuclear doctrine and planning. My reactions to this reading focused mostly on how such information would drive the discussion and planning for further reductions in the nuclear stockpile.

In class on Thursday, Professor Glaser mentioned that the US and Russia would commit multiple missiles and warheads to a strategic target. Through technical analysis Hafemeister concludes that committing three reliable warheads to a target is unnecessary because of the increased risk of fratricide and the limited benefits the third warhead could provide. With the increases in missile accuracy (within 90 m for US missiles in 1988), just how many ICBMs does a nation need for offensive purposes or to simply serve as a nuclear deterrent?

Hafemeister includes two stories where warning systems in either the USSR or US falsely indicated that the nation was under attack. Protocol would have led the threatened nation to launch their ICBMs preemptively as the incoming missiles would have likely destroyed them. As ICBMs are not recallable, nuclear war could have occurred in either of these instances. This led me to consider whether the Cuban missile crisis would have happened if the Soviets were introducing a system other than missiles. Could there have been a Cuban “strategic bomber” crisis, or would bombers not pose the same threat?

With the vulnerability of missile silos pressuring nations to “fire on warning”, I finished the Hafemeister reading believing that ICBMs were the most dangerous leg of the nuclear triad. As the two historical examples show us, they are perhaps the most likely to cause an accidental nuclear war and motivate nations to keep large stockpiles to compensate for their vulnerability and the possibility that a missile fails to destroy its target. While air defenses may cause military planner to hesitate to rely heavily on bombers, improvements in stealth technology, the ability to recall bombers and submarines, and the strong reliability and relative invulnerability of submarine launched missiles (according to GAO) lead me to believe that these two legs of the triad would provide sufficient options for military planners. Therefore, if I had to prioritize the reduction in the nuclear stockpile, I would be inclined to focus such efforts on ICBMs. I’d be interested to hear if others had similar or different conclusions, especially regarding the necessity of a nuclear “triad.” — Jameson