Jeffrey LewisAir Force May Convert 50 ICBMs to Conventional Roles

A big story in a tiny little newspaper today.

The forthcoming Quadrennial Defense Review may recommend that the Air Force convert 50 Minuteman III ICBMs to a conventional role, relocating the missiles to Vandenberg AFB in CA from their current home at picturesque Malmstrom AFB, Montana (pictured above).

At least that is what Senator Kent Conrad (D-ND) told told the Minot Daily News:

“Now we face a new risk ­ the new risk, the Quadrennial Review, is under way, the so-called QDR. The way it’s coming down it is also going to be simultaneously a Nuclear Posture Review,” Conrad said.

He said the discussion is about having some of the missiles become “conventionally oriented,” Conrad said.


“From my previous reports to you, we know that there was an attempt at a very high level to reduce the number of missiles to convert some of them to conventional use. We know that we were able to help stop that movement during the BRAC process, partly because we learned of it and were able to alert others who pushed back very forcefully,” Conrad said.

“Now we know in the Quadrennial Review this debate has resurfaced and there is a push to reduce the number of missiles dedicated to the nuclear responsibility, shift some of them to a conventional role and that’s got implications for Minot as well,” Conrad said.

“Certainly if you had 150 missiles being converted to that purpose and being shifted to some other launch site, that would pose a severe threat. They couldn’t close the base because we’re past the BRAC process, but they could take away some or all of our missiles, and that would have implications for the future,” Conrad said.

He said the present proposals, near as he can tell from his information, involve a number of missiles significantly less than 150, however.

“Probably the best estimates are they’d be talking somewhere in the range of 50 missiles to be converted from a nuclear role to a conventional role,” Conrad said.

Most likely, he said such a transfer of 50 missiles would be out of Malmstrom AFB near Great Falls, Mont., probably to Vandenberg AFB in California.

I blogged about conventional ICBMs back in April, when Lance Lord mentioned that STRATCOM Commander James “Hoss” Cartwright was excited about the idea.

Past proposals, such as one made by the Defense Science Board, suggested using Peacekeeper ICBMs scheduled to be decommissioned. That would be politically easier than taking away 50 ICBMs from two US Senators.

Another question arises from converting missiles that currently have a day job: What happens to the nuclear warheads? Given current targeting practices, I presume they would not go into storage. That leaves only one option—putting multiple warheads on some of the remaining Minuteman III missiles. These are the kind of Cold War deployment patterns that were supposed to end with, well, the Cold War.

Senator Conrad told the Minot Daily News that he has drafted legislation making it the policy of the United States to maintain 500 land-based ICBMs, each with a single nuclear warhead. More on that tomorrow.

Scott R. Gourley summarizes the arguments for conventionally armed ICBMs in Military Aerospace Technology, based on a presentation by retired Air Force Major General Thomas H. Neary entitled The Future of ICBM Forces.

If anyone has a copy of Neary’s presentation, I am interested.


  1. Jim (History)

    Malmstrom AFB is in Montana. Minot AFB is in North Dakota. I assume that the good senator from ND would be more concerned about Minot than Malmstrom.

    [I actually knew that. Call it jet-lag. Conrad’s concern is this may be a first step. More on that below. ACW]

  2. jay denari (History)

    If they’re talking about conversion anyway, why don’t we “commandeer” the missiles for use in the space program? Are they powerful enough to launch satellites, the shuttle, or parts for the space station?

    We’ve already got more than enough conventional missiles.

    [It’s more complicated than that. We don’t have a tremendous number of surplus missiles and the actually rockets are optimized differently in small but important ways. Still, the Minotaur SLV uses decommissioned Peacekeeper rocket motors. See here.]

  3. Stephen Schwartz (History)

    It is more than a little sad that a Senator, and a Democrat at that, is opposed to relocating and denuclearizing ICBMs, even going so far as to call it a “severe threat,” because his state might lose some military jobs.

    Not that this will change anytime soon, given how Congress operates, but nuclear weapons don’t exist to provide jobs. If the military decides it can do without them, or move them somewhere where they make more military sense, don’t stand in the way!

    Hey Senator Conrad: The “severe threat” is that nukes might be used against us, and that the aggressive U.S. nuclear posture will encourage others to get their own such weapons or lead to a serious accident in a crisis. Let’s keep some perspective here, okay, and focus on the bigger picture.

  4. Jeffrey Lewis (History)

    Hey Stephen …

    I realize that Senator Conrad’s concerns are partly constituent oriented, but there are arms control grounds to think this is a bad idea.

    First — and I think I pointed this out in the post — the warheads are probably going to be placed back on the remaining ICBMs in a MIRV’d configuration. So, the result is no net decrease in the number of nuclear weapons.

    Second, I believe conventional ICBMs will be integrated as a complement to (rather than a substitute for) nuclear weapons in what used to be called the SIOP. So, the creation of conventionally armed ICBMs is one way the Defense Department may perpetuate a Cold War warfighting posture.

    Finally, shifting to a largely submarine based deterrent posture essentially prevents further de-alerting measures with the Russians (see, for example, the Deutch article in Foreign Affairs).

    So, I guess I am in Senator Conrad’s camp on this one.

  5. Alex Montgomery (History)

    About 350 of the 500 Minutemen are already MIRVed; my guess is that the 50 retired would be the one-W62 Minutemen, which could be easily added to half of the remaining 100 one-W62 Minutemen. Resulting in a decrease in stability.

  6. jay denari (History)

    One of the responses to your spring column on this wrote:

    By refining the accuracy of long-range delivery systems and warheads, “the amount of energy [required] to kill the target or destroy the target could actually get to the point where conventional weapons could generate sufficient energy,” Cartwright said.

    Don’t we already have such warheads? We used conventional bombs stronger than the Hiroshima bomb in Afghanistan. Is there a limit to how powerful conventional wpns can get?

    [Actually, the largest bomb in the US arsenal is the MOAB — the Mother of All Bombs. With a yield of tens of thousands pounds, the MOAB is puny compared to even a Hiroshima sized weapon, with a yield in the tens of kiloton range.

    Cartwright was, presumably, talking about penetrating hard and deeply buried targets. Although sheer force is one solution — see the Missile Technology Demonstration — another is improved conventional penetrators like the cavity penetrator, which could be dropped from an aircraft.

    Supercavitation-alisticexpealidocious. ACW].

  7. Felix Deutsch (History)

    Wouldn’t conventional ICBMs be kind of dangerous, in that they would be more likely to be launched than nuclear-tipped ones (and when that happens, all bet’s are off anyway), but would set off all the early warning systems?

  8. J. (History)

    I was thinking the same as Felix – how do we alert our “allies” and adversaries when we light off a conventional rocket that looks and smells just like a nuke? Have they thought that through?

  9. Jeffrey Lewis (History)

    This was a concern expressed by the House and Senate Appropriations Committees.

    The current answer is to base the missiles in a distinct field, in this case Vandenberg AFB.

    No, I don’t think that even begins to solve the operational problems.

  10. Stephen Schwartz (History)

    Hey Jeffrey,

    Points well taken. I will bear them in mind if and when this process moves forward. In the meantime, I still think it’s unhelpful and hyperbolic for Senator Conrad to call such a move a “severe threat.”

  11. Jeffrey Lewis (History)

    No argument here.