Why does the US keep silo-based ICBMs?

Why does the US keep silo-based ICBMs?
Why does the US keep silo-based ICBMs?

Nuclear triad

There are only three nuclear powers in the world that have a full-fledged strategic nuclear triad, which includes ground-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) in silo and / or mobile versions, nuclear submarines with ballistic missiles (SSBNs) and strategic bombers with cruise missiles and nuclear bombs. warheads (YABCh) are the USA, Russia and China. Moreover, China is included in this list with reservations - its naval component of the strategic nuclear forces (SNF) is extremely poorly developed, and strategic aviation is still represented by obsolete bombers copied from the Soviet Tu-16. Other nuclear powers have only one or two elements of the nuclear triad.


Why, in general, are different elements of the nuclear triad needed? Why not limit ourselves to just one element of the strategic nuclear forces?

Answer: because of the need to ensure the combat stability of strategic nuclear forces before the enemy delivers a sudden disarming strike.

It is believed that ICBMs located in mines are currently one of the most vulnerable elements of strategic nuclear forces - their location is known in advance, which means that they can be attacked. The aviation component of the strategic nuclear forces is even more vulnerable to the first attack of the enemy due to the fact that missile-carrying bombers are based on stationary airfields, and in the event of a sudden disarming strike by the enemy, they will most likely not have time to disperse, but keep them on constant combat duty in the air with nuclear warheads, it is unsafe and extremely expensive.

It is believed that currently the least vulnerable to a sudden disarming strike are mobile ground missile systems (PGRK), combat railway missile systems (BZHRK) and SSBN. However, a lot here depends on the specific country and specific conditions. It is logical that the PGRK and BRZhK in France would be much more vulnerable than in Russia and the PRC, and Russian strategic missile submarines (SSBNs) have much less combat resistance than US SSBNs, due to the incomparable capabilities of the fleets to cover them and inconvenient geography of Russian naval bases.


The vulnerability of various components of strategic nuclear forces to a sudden disarming attack by the enemy was discussed in detail in a series of articles. "The decline of the nuclear triad" "Air and ground components of strategic nuclear forces", "Marine component of strategic nuclear forces".


The US strategic nuclear triad has a rather interesting structure. The aviation component of the US Strategic Nuclear Forces is a purely offensive tool with high flexibility of use, while being effectively used to deliver strikes with conventional weapons. Under the existing START-3 treaty, one strategic bomber is counted as one nuclear charge. Given that the United States has withdrawn B-1B bombers from the nuclear triad, 20 stealth B-2 and 70 B-52H bombers are counted as "nuclear charges", that is, a total of 90 units.


Everything is clear with the naval component of the strategic nuclear forces. The US Navy is superior in combat power to the fleets of all other countries in the world combined. This allows them to provide the highest level of security for the fourteen Ohio-class SSBNs that form the backbone of the US strategic nuclear forces. In total, Ohio-class SSBNs account for about 60% of the American nuclear arsenal.


The third component of the US strategic nuclear forces is 450 silo-based Minuteman III missiles. It is characteristic that the "Minutemen" are subordinate to the US Air Force (Air Force), not the ground forces. The US Army does not have strategic nuclear charges and their carriers under its control.


The ratio of nuclear charges on strategic bombers, SSBNs and in mines is rather relative. For example, each bomber can carry more than one nuclear charge - the same B-52H can carry up to 20 stealthy ALCM cruise missiles (CR) with a nuclear warhead. Although the ALCM CDs are currently decommissioned, it is planned to develop a new Long-Range Stand-Off (LRSO) long-range aviation cruise missile to replace them. Thus, only the B-52H can potentially carry up to 1400 nuclear charges in total.

In 2007, 2,116 of 3,492 existing nuclear warheads were deployed on Ohio-class SSBNs. At the moment, according to the START-3 treaty, one Trident II (D5) submarine ballistic missile (SLBM) can carry four nuclear warheads. At the same time, potentially "Trident II" can carry up to 8 W88 warheads with a capacity of 475 kilotons or up to 14 W76 warheads with a capacity of 100 kilotons. On one SSBN can be deployed 24 SLBMs of the "Trident II" type or 336 nuclear warheads.

In turn, ICBMs of the "Minuteman-III" type currently carry only one warhead out of three possible.

All of the above suggests that the United States can relatively quickly increase the number of operatively deployed nuclear warheads by 2–3 times

At the moment, the United States is completing the development of a new strategic bomber B-21, which may become the most advanced and protected aircraft of this type. To replace the Ohio-class SSBNs, promising Columbia-class SSBNs are being actively developed.


At the same time, the United States is not going to abandon ICBMs located in protected mines. To replace the Minuteman-III missile, Northrop Grumman is developing a promising GBSD (Ground Based Strategic Deterrent) ICBM.


With the aviation component of the US Strategic Nuclear Forces, everything is clear - this is a high flexibility of use, the ability to effectively deliver strikes with conventional weapons. With the naval component of the US strategic nuclear forces, everything is also clear - now and in the foreseeable future, it is the most resistant to a surprise disarming strike by the enemy. But why the US strategic nuclear forces of silo-based ICBMs, given that, as stated, is currently the most vulnerable component of the strategic nuclear forces?

Causes and Effects

As a weapon of the first disarming / decapitating strike, the Minuteman missiles are practically useless. Their location is known, they are located at a considerable distance from the territory of the USSR / Russia, which is why their flight time to the target will be about 30 minutes. During this period of time, they will most likely be detected by the space and ground echelons of the Russian missile attack warning system (EWS), after which a retaliatory strike will be delivered.

For a disarming / decapitating strike, SSBNs are much better suited, which can approach the minimum launch distance of SLBMs along a flat flight path, with an approach time of about 10 minutes.

As a deterrent weapon, the naval component of the US strategic nuclear forces is currently out of competition. Most likely, this situation will continue in the foreseeable future. The uncertainty of the location of SSBNs, as well as their cover by the US Navy, makes it possible, even in the event of a nuclear strike by someone on the United States, not to "flog a fever", but to make an informed decision, to choose the optimal targets for a retaliatory strike. In other words, the naval component of the US Strategic Nuclear Forces potentially makes it possible to abandon a retaliatory strike in favor of only a retaliatory one.

The question also arises, why did the US not build PGRK and / or BZHRK?

Our reconnaissance capabilities are significantly inferior to those of the United States - the grouping of reconnaissance satellites is smaller and worse, there are no allies from whose territory reconnaissance aircraft trying to "look" further could fly along the US borders, and reconnaissance aircraft such as U-2 / TR-1, SR-71 or unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) "Global Hawk" we do not have. The territory of the United States is huge, the length of the railway network is 293,564 kilometers, which is almost three times that of the Russian Federation (122 thousand km). The length of highways in the USA is 6,733 thousand km, versus 1,530 thousand km for the Russian Federation.


Sometimes the opinion is expressed that the USA simply could not build the PGRK and the BZHRK. This sounds patriotic, but somewhat naive, given the competence of the United States in the development of solid-propellant missiles and the general level of technical and technological development of this country. Rather, it is a matter of expediency and banal concentration of funds in the right direction. There can be only one explanation - if the tasks of creating PGRK and BZHRK were considered (and this is so, the Minutemans were planned to be placed on railway platforms), then their priority was extremely low.

Then why not abandon the "vulnerable" ICBMs in the mines at all? Just because of the Air Force lobbying? But they have more than a hundred bombers, could their number be increased and, finally, an air-launched ICBM could be made?

Most likely, the reason is the following:

There is one key difference between silo-based ICBMs and all other options for deploying ICBMs - on PGRK, BZHRK, SSBN, strategic bombers and transport aircraft (air-launched ICBMs) - ICBMs in mines can only be destroyed by nuclear weapons and nothing else, while all other carriers of nuclear weapons can be destroyed with conventional conventional weapons

Yes, in the foreseeable future, conventional systems will appear that can destroy ICBMs in a protected mine - orbital strike systems or hypersonic delivery vehicles with an anti-bunker payload, but this will be a completely different page in the development of strategic nuclear forces. For the next two to three decades, if such complexes appear, then in limited numbers, and the likelihood of their destruction of ICBMs in mines will still be lower than that of nuclear warheads.

The number of conventional weapons is currently not regulated by any treaties. The same low-flying, stealthy subsonic cruise missiles can be deployed in an amount of tens of thousands of units, as well as thousands of hypersonic missiles in the near future. And the number of nuclear charges will always be limited, if not by contracts, then by the high cost of their deployment and maintenance.

Based on this, the existence of a silo-based ICBM in the US Strategic Nuclear Forces can only be explained by the fact that at any given time, the US armed forces cannot be 100% sure that the enemy has not found a way to track and destroy all US SSBNs. Moreover, the enemy does not need to "spend" strategic nuclear charges, tactical nuclear charges or, in general, conventional weapons.

Similarly, the situation may develop with the PGRK / BZHRK - no matter how extensive the network of roads and railways is, it is impossible to guarantee 100% that by installing special reconnaissance devices along the route or even on the carriers themselves, due to the development of a spy network or otherwise, the routes of movement of the PGRK and BZHRK were not revealed, as a result of which they can be destroyed with conventional long-range weapons or even reconnaissance and sabotage units.

Thus, silo-based ICBMs, despite the fact that their location is precisely known, are one of the most resistant components of strategic nuclear forces to a surprise disarming strike by the enemy

This is a guarantee that even if the enemy gains the advantage of being able to destroy all SSBNs, the United States will not remain defenseless.

It is possible that SSBNs do not even need to be destroyed. Knowing their approximate location in the areas of their combat patrols, mobile anti-missile defense (ABM) weapons can be deployed, destroying launching SLBMs "in pursuit" at the initial, most vulnerable section of the trajectory - this possibility was considered in the articles "Nuclear multi-functional submarine cruiser: an asymmetric response to the West" and Nuclear Multifunctional Submarine: A Paradigm Shift.

It can be assumed with a high probability that at present the structure of the US strategic nuclear forces is the most balanced and effective, in terms of flexibility of use and combat stability, among all other countries of the world, including Russia.

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