Silent, aging guardians

To the voluminous list of ironies that attended the Cold War doctrine of mutually assured destruction, we can add one more. On its 50th birthday, the intercontinental ballistic missile, that once-commanding symbol of the apocalypse, has become a national security underdog, a defense system whose future is uncertain, whose ranks are dwindling and whose utility in the 21st century is in serious question. That might gladden aging peaceniks whose Volvos sported “Nuclear weapons: May they rust in peace” bumper stickers during the Reagan era, but these days hawks and doves are equally likely to regard the ICBM with suspicion.

Consider the numbers. From a 1969 peak of 1,054, the Air Force now fields 450 missiles. Within the last three years the United States has retired 100 ICBMs, including the entire run of Peacekeepers, which began life as the controversial “MX” missile in the ‘70s. Mighty Vandenberg Air Force Base, where the first nuclear-tipped Atlas rocket facilities were built in 1958, lives on as a spaceport and missile testing facility, but today 22 square miles of mostly undeveloped coastal land in Santa Barbara County look more like a lost opportunity in real estate than an urgent military asset. The last Titan II rocket (decommissioned from missile duty in 1987) took off from Vandenberg in 2003, carrying a payload for the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program; the three-stage Minuteman (1962- ) is now the only land-based ICBM in the U.S. arsenal. Much of the action in America’s ongoing wars is conducted by unmanned aerial vehicles, and the Air Force is engaged in various great debates about next-generation weapons, including the very interesting question of whether piloted fighters and bombers have any future. How can the ICBM help but seem like the last Hula Hoop in the age of the RipStik?

During a recent visit to Vandenberg to help mark the semi-centennial of nuclear-tipped missiles, Maj. Gen. Thomas F. Deppe made a compelling case for the ICBM. Wearing boots and digital camouflage and speaking without notes or coffee in a windowless office, the burly vice commander of Air Force Space Command at Colorado’s Peterson Air Force Base acknowledged the waning of the fleet but pointed out that the ICBM remains a vital deterrent, at least to clearly delineated state-to-state war: “The beauty of the ICBM is that it tremendously complicates matters for any adversary attacking this country.”

Is that true, though? After all, the nuclear umbrella doesn’t seem to have complicated the first foreign assault on U.S. soil of the 21st century. But Deppe, who began his Air Force career as an enlisted instrumentation technician in 1967 and has worked in missiles for most of his adult life, points not to the attacks that occurred on Sept. 11, 2001, but to the many that didn’t occur in the 50 years before that. “The lesson of the Cold War is that strategic deterrence works,” Deppe said. “There are a number of nations, and unfortunately that number is on the rise, that are developing nuclear capability, that have ballistic missile capability that can reach this country. The question of deterrence, and how much is enough, goes back to my earliest years in the Air Force. And really, it’s impossible to measure how much is enough. You’ll know if you don’t have enough, but you’ll never know if you have too much. Is 450 the right number? Apparently it is, because we’re deterring aggressors. But is 449 not enough?”


Don’t expect to find out any time soon. The Air Force is completing a $7-billion upgrade of its Minuteman assets, a “nosecone to nozzle” spiffing up that will keep the missile in place until about 2030. What will come after that? Strategic Command has been considering the possibility of conventional ICBMs for years. In planning for an eventual Minuteman replacement, the Air Force is looking for smarter, more accurate delivery systems, but it is not ignoring the continuing value of being able to deliver nasty surprises from outer space. “The ICBM remains the single most prompt weapon we have,” Deppe noted. “It can reach out and touch somebody anywhere in the world in 45 minutes.”

Which lends one cheerful note to this grim anniversary: In all these years, the things still haven’t been used. Unlike carrier fleets or rapid-deployment forces, the ICBM was not about power projection or foreign intervention but about persuading a lethal adversary not to attack the U.S. The strangest possible outcome of mutually assured destruction was the one that came to pass: Two political and economic systems competed without coming to blows, and the better system prevailed. That’s no less astounding now than it was in the ‘90s -- or for that matter the ‘50s, when those missileers first went underground with their little keys, awaiting orders that never came.