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Up in Smoke: The Other Space Race Continues

by | Jun 17, 2024


A comprehensive ban on all nuclear testing occurred in the 1990s. The Soviet Union’s last nuclear test took place on 24 October 1990; the United Kingdom’s on 26 November 1991 and the United States’ on 23 September 1992.

Advances in the ICBM arena have continued apace but the US and the European nuclear powers are way behind. Whether you’re aware of it or not, the majority of the American nuclear arsenal is ancient, sclerotic and wedded to a command and control system that is aging and not well.

In researching these essays, I always run into stuff I had no awareness of and I ran into this lovely discovery:

In January, the Sentinel program triggered a review under the 1982 Nunn-McCurdy Act, which requires the Pentagon to notify Congress if a weapon’s per-unit cost (either procurement alone or the development, procurement, and construction total) goes 25 percent over its most recent estimate or 50 percent over the original one. Under Nunn-McCurdy, Sentinel’s projected increase of 37 percent constitutes a “critical breach.” When a critical breach occurs, the law requires the program to be terminated––unless the Defense Secretary certifies that it is essential to national security and that there are no reasonable alternatives.

Will dig further but I wonder if anyone has forensically dug into this to see how it applies to every large defense program period since them.That doesn’t stop the award of an incredibly expensive upgrade to current rocket forces for land based Minuteman III ICBMs whose first launched has already sipped to 2026 as a result of inevitable delays.

The Sentinel program was established in 2020 with a sole-source award to Northrop Grumman, at a projected cost of $95 billion—already $30 billion more than the first cost estimate by the Air Force in 2015. In January, the Air Force revealed that the estimated cost had passed $131 billion, a 37 percent over the 2020 estimate. The new ICBM is still being developed; thus far, not a single missile has been produced. 

That $131 billion covers the development and acquisition of the missiles, but it is not the full picture. It does not include their nuclear warheads, which are expected to cost $15 billion. Nor does it include the cost of operating and maintaining the missiles over their anticipated 50-year lifetime. Air Force officials have yet to release an estimate for that figure, but historical data on the current Minuteman III ICBM suggests it would be about $100 billion in today’s dollars.


Secretary Austin is likely to claim that there is no alternative, that the United States needs ICBMs for its nuclear deterrent, as long argued by the Air Force and Strategic Command. In February, STRATCOM commander Gen. Anthony Cotton insisted to the Senate Armed Services Committee that the new ICBM program “absolutely has to be done.” 

But there is an alternative: just rely on the rest of America’s nuclear arsenal. As Gen. Cotton’s predecessor, Adm. Charles Richard, told lawmakers in 2021, the nuclear arsenal is designed to operate and meet all presidential objectives even if one leg of the “nuclear triad” no longer exists. The U.S. typically has eight to 10 ballistic missile submarines deployed at sea, each carrying 20 missiles and about 100 warheads, enough to devastate a country. Unlike ICBMs, U.S. ballistic submarines are undetectable and therefore invulnerable to an enemy first strike. Air Force bombers—the B-52s that are getting a thousand new stealthy nuclear-capable cruise missiles and the 100 B-21s that will join them—can be launched on warning of incoming attack and recalled if necessary.


ICBMs sit in fixed, in-ground silos visible from space. Adversaries know exactly where they are. Sentinel proponents call this a virtue for two reasons.

First, they say these missile fields increase deterrence by raising the cost of a first nuclear strike on the U.S. homeland: they argue that an adversary would need to expend a large fraction of its nuclear arsenal to wipe out all 450 silos. This line of reasoning ignores the submarines, which could mount a counterattack no matter how many land-based missiles are destroyed.

Moreover, an attack on this “nuclear sponge” would incur horrific human costs. Millions of Americans living in ICBM-host states—Colorado, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, and Wyoming—would be subject to lethal fallout. Depending upon the direction of the wind, virtually everyone in the continental United States, Canada, and northern Mexico would be at some risk of receiving a lethal dose of radiation. (If Sentinel is not cancelled, Congress and the administration should at least require and release a full assessment of the potential effects of attacks on the ICBM silos.)

Second, proponents say the ICBM force is the “most responsive” leg of the triad because it is kept on a hair-trigger posture, lest it be wiped out in an enemy first strike. Again, this ignores the submarines, which stand no less ready.

Read the whole article.

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Bill Buppert

Bill Buppert

Bill Buppert is the host of Chasing Ghosts: An Irregular Warfare Podcast and a contributor over time to various liberty endeavors. He served in the military for nearly a quarter century and contractor tours after retirement on occasion and was a combat tourist in a number of neo-imperialist shit-pits around the world.

He can be found on twitter at @wbuppert and reached via email at

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