The fate of Western Civilization may hinge on the great debate now raging within Washington’s beltway, virtually unnoted on nightly news and unknown to most Americans, over whether to replace the nation’s 400 obsolete Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) with a new ICBM — or unilaterally eliminate all U.S. ICBMs.

My report “Surprise Attack: ICBMs and the Real Nuclear Threat” (October 31, 2020) warned: “A Biden Administration or future Democrat Congress is likely to unilaterally abolish U.S. ICBMs … to the grave detriment of U.S. national security.”

Nuclear Armageddon’s arithmetic is more real and easier to understand than the alleged existential threat from climate change.  Subtract 400 credible ICBMs from the U.S. nuclear deterrent, and Russia, China, and even North Korea or Iran, could do a nuclear Pearl Harbor, by making a surprise attack on 3 U.S. strategic bomber bases and 2 ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) ports—just 5 targets altogether.

Deterring this scenario since 1970 is the Minuteman III ICBM, now 50 years old, originally designed to last 10 years, nearing end of its last possible life extension program. Minuteman still stands guard, ready to launch in minutes responding to a surprise attack — unlike U.S. nuclear bombers or ballistic missile submarines.

U.S. bombers are not maintained nuclear-armed or on strip-alert and so would be destroyed in a surprise attack.

Surprise attack on just two ports would destroy two-thirds of 14 U.S. SSBNs normally berthed, while the three-four SSBNs normally on patrol at sea would require hours to respond to an Emergency Action Message (EAM) ordering them to launch missiles. 

Hours can become forever in a nuclear war that kills the National Command Authority, uses electromagnetic pulse (EMP) to fry communications links for transmitting EAMs, and unleashes decades of enemy planning and secret weapons designed to destroy the small number of U.S. SSBNs hiding at sea.

The comfortable notion that U.S. missile submarines are “invulnerable” almost certainly underestimates the awesome power of nuclear weapons, and other adversary capabilities, to destroy and disrupt at least EAM communications links that make SSBNs a viable deterrent. Is it really possible for a nation to absorb a nuclear surprise attack, and then respond via SSBNs?

The question is yet unanswered. But we may well soon find out if U.S. ICBMs are junked, while Russia, China and North Korea continue their one-sided nuclear arms race building new ICBMs.

If surprise attack is the most likely nuclear threat, then the most important part of the U.S. nuclear deterrent, the only part that may matter in deterring or responding to surprise attack, are the ICBMs and their 400 ever-ready warheads.