With the Biden administration’s 2022 defense budget coming in at US $753 billion, it’s easy to get diverted by the megaton-sized sum that the United States plans to spend on modernizing its nuclear forces over the coming decades. But a bigger question about the future of nuclear deterrence arguably looms—namely, how might intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) affect national security in an era of emerging tech threats? Some of those tech threats are not even typically associated with warfare: social media, deepfakes, cyber weapons, machine learning, commercial satellites, and autonomous systems, to name a few.
To the surprise of many, President Biden decided in May 2021 to push ahead with a strategic-weapons modernization proposed by past administrations. The centerpiece is a planned replacement for the aging Minuteman III ICBMs called the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD), for which a whopping $2.6 billion has been pledged to begin development. Given Biden’s promise to take a closer look at reducing the size of the U.S. nuclear arsenal during his campaign, many arms control advocates were stunned by the administration’s full endorsement of the GBSD in the budget. The new land-based missiles are scheduled to replace the 400 Minuteman III missiles deployed under the New Start Treaty in the states of Colorado, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, and Wyoming over the next sixteen years; they will be in active service until sometime in the 2080s, at least.
Conspicuously missing from the debate over new ICBMs is the destabilizing implications of emerging technologies—including cyber weapons and autonomous systems.
In the lead up to the budget request, experts on both sides of the issue engaged in a spirited debate about the necessity, or lack thereof, for maintaining all three legs of the U.S. nuclear triad—nuclear-armed bombers, land-based ICBMs, and submarine-launched missiles. A recurring theme in these arguments revolves around the role that ICBMs might play in the deterrence equation in the 21st century. And yet, conspicuously missing from the discussion was sufficient consideration of the dangerous, destabilizing implications for ICBMs and other strategic weapons created by the categories of emerging technologies indicated above: cyber weapons, autonomous systems, and so on.
Proponents view ICBMs as a key component of a sound U.S. nuclear deterrent in the future, raising the threshold for nuclear war—and thereby reducing any likelihood of a nuclear attack by an adversary. In an interview, Dr. Brad Roberts, Former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear and Missile Defense Policy, suggests two scenarios, one without any ICBMs and the other with the current stockpile: “In one, the adversary has the means to eliminate most of the U.S. nuclear force with preemptive attacks on a few submarine and bomber bases, reserving the bulk of its nuclear force for punishment of the U.S. if it retaliates. In the other, the adversary must launch hundreds of nuclear weapons into the American heartland, depleting its arsenal while killing millions. In which scenario can U.S. leaders be expected by enemy leaders to have the political will to retaliate? The latter. The ICBM force helps adversaries to understand that the U.S. will defend its interests if attacked—and thereby to avoid a serious miscalculation.”
Other experts vehemently disagree. Former Secretary of Defense Bill Perry has argued that ICBMs in particular are highly unstable, increasing the risk of miscalculation, accidental launch, and thus nuclear war. As such, an enormous program to make new ICBMs is a dangerous enterprise. In Perry’s view it’s also an unnecessary expense, especially when the lifetime of existing Minutemen III can be extended until 2030, allowing for these missiles to be phased out in the course of future arms treaties or other weapons-reduction initiatives. However, it still remains unclear whether such life extension would result in any cost savings. Meanwhile, the total costs for the new land-based missiles could reach more than $264 billion over the course of their development and eventual deployment.
Given their perceived instability, ICBMs would likely face more risks from emerging technologies that distort the information landscape (including deep fakes) or that compress decision-making timeframes (including autonomous systems). Roberts is sanguine about risks, suggesting that “new technologies such as social media, deepfakes, and cyber weapons make a complex situation even more complex. But this is an old problem in new form,” he says. “Nuclear decision-makers have faced the challenges of information overload, the risk of unreliable information, and the pressure to act for decades, and they will continue to adapt their practices to a changing technology environment.”
Oddly, the debate surrounding ICBMs has mostly failed to take emerging technologies into account. But Marina Favaro, a Research Fellow at the Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy (IFSH) at the University of Hamburg, warns in a new report that in a nuclear crisis, several of the new technologies have the potential to distort the information landscape and force leaders to make hasty, badly informed decisions. “When you consider the strategic environment today, we see a number of emerging technologies that may contract decision-making windows or disrupt information flows,” Favaro said in an interview. That, she added, “could lead to uncertainty, miscalculation, and escalation in a nuclear crisis.”
Biden’s budget decision appears to reflect a deep bipartisan consensus among a majority of experts within the defense community about the need for a nuclear triad—a notion that has been deeply embedded in American strategic thinking for many decades. The U.S. and Russia have maintained a strong nuclear triad since the height of the Cold War in the 1960s, and were recently joined by both China and India. The Nuclear Posture Reviews of both the Obama and Trump administrations strongly support the triad as a means of providing options for reducing incentives for nuclear war and for hedging against possible changes in nuclear threats.
The desire to hedge against the future makes the absence of a thorough debate about the relative impact of emerging technologies on the different legs of nuclear triad more striking. The Biden administration plans to begin deliberations on its Nuclear Posture Review in the coming months. Early indications suggest that the President will seek to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. national security. Perhaps, the administration will also take another look at plans for ICBM modernization and examine the new risks posed by emerging technologies.
Dr. Natasha Bajema is the Director of the Converging Risks Lab at the Council on Strategic Risks and an IEEE Spectrum contributor. She has held long-term assignments at the National Defense University, in the U.S. Office of the Secretary of Defense, and at the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration.