I recently heard about a Pentagon idea that may well be the most brain dead concept I've heard in recent memory, and that's saying something. The idea is to repurpose existing Minuteman III ICBMs (Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles) to carry conventional payloads. Put simply, they would yank the nuclear warheads and put in a conventional one in its place thus giving the military a pretty accurate intercontinental strike capability. The idea is not new. President G.W. Bush tried several times to insert budgeting to convert Trident SLBMs (Submarine Launched Ballistic Missiles) to conventional use during his Presidency. Thankfully intelligent people were involved and the plan was killed.
I give the idea a B+ for reusing and recycling equipment but I give it an F- for common sense. Let's take a quick history lesson here shall we? ICBMs can be traced back to the German V-2 built during WWII and launched from continental Europe and targeted for London and other UK areas. After the war both the US and USSR began looking at the technology to supplement their nuclear bomber forces. In 1957 the Soviets launched their first true ICBM, the R-7 and almost two years later the US tested the Atlas D. These missiles were built to deliver nuclear payloads thousands of miles around the world. They were developed continually until the end of the Cold War resulting in missiles capable of reaching from the US or Soviet heartlands to almost any part of the opposition's country. At the zenith of their development, ICBMs were fitted with MIRV (Multiple Independent Re-entry Vehicles) payloads that were capable of delivering multiple warheads to independent targets from a single missile. The ICBM concept was also expanded to include SLBMs that could be launched from dedicated submarines anywhere in the world with minimal warning. Nuclear war is what ICBMs were built for. This is what they have represented to the world for the last 50+ years.
So can anyone tell me why firing off a conventionally tipped ICBM might be a questionable plan? Even with the Cold War officially over for the better part of 20 years, NORAD (North American Air Defense) still operates beneath Cheyenne Mountain in Colorado just like its Russian equivalent certainly does. The entire facility is mounted on massive shock absorbers and designed to be sealed away from the rest of the world in the event of a nuclear attack. And sitting in a room are soldiers who, in addition to monitoring North America airspace in general, also still monitor the world for ICBM launches. Just like the Russians still do. You might be surprised to know that there is absolutely no way to tell the difference between a nuclear and conventional payload from a launch detection display. Unlike a cruise missile, a ballistic missile flies on a very unique trajectory. It launches vertically into the upper stratosphere and is anything but stealthy. You don't exactly need stealth when your opponent only has 15 minutes or less before impact and has minimal interception options once the warhead detaches from the missile itself. The point is that there is no way to disguise or hide an ICBM launch. When it leaves the silo, lights are going to start flashing all over the world and heads of state will be woken. Yes, we could inform Russia beforehand, not to mention the UK, France, Germany, China, Canada and every other major power that it's not a nuke. And we can tell them all that anything launched from Vandenberg AFB is just a conventional ICBM, so don't worry it's all good. But do you really think it's a good idea to use a system that is one misunderstanding or dropped communique away from starting a nuclear exchange?
Sure, there are advantages to the idea. Pop off an ICBM from California and hit a target in the mountains of Afghanistan in about 10 minutes or so with pretty good accuracy. But we already have cruise missiles that can be launched from ships and submarines. B-1B, B-2 Stealth and even the venerable B-52 can carry upwards of 20 cruise missiles virtually around the globe, non-stop with the use of inflight refueling. From launch point, cruise missiles can reach out another 600 + miles and strike with high accuracy. We have unmanned drones that can operate from remote locations and hit targets with precision munitions. Do we really need what the ICBM can give us? I don't think so, because the danger is overwhelming. All it will take is one mistake to potentially kill millions. It comes down to this- yes a conventionally armed ICBM would add a small bit of extra flexibility to the US military arsenal. However, the very real danger of using a weapon that is indeed the iconic symbol of nuclear war far outweighs any fleeting benefits we might gain. This idea is the product of abject stupidity.