Jeffrey LewisSTRATCOM Hearts MIRV

Inside Defense has published excerpts from a draft of the Quadrennial Defense Review. The QDR announced that DOD will “reduce the number of deployed Minuteman III ballistic missiles from 500 to 450.”

This raises an interesting question—what happens to the nuclear warheads from those 50 ICBMs?

As recently as 2004, the United States planned to “download” the warheads on the Minuteman III ICBM from three to one—a major goal of the now defunct START II Treaty.

Best I can guess, the Bush Administration now plans to keep multiple nuclear warheads on some of our ICBMs – probably as part of a “surge capability” to increase the total number of US nuclear weapons during a crisis by “uploading” multiple warheads back onto the entire Minuteman III force.

This seems like a bad idea to me.


The excerpts of the draft QDR leaked to Inside Defense contain just one sentence announcing that DOD will:

Reduce the number of deployed Minuteman III ballistic missiles from 500 to 450.

That’s interesting.

The Minot Daily News had previously reported such a cut in August 2005, quoting Senator Kent Conrad (D-ND) to the effect that the QDR might convert 50 MM III ICBMs to conventional roles and base them at Vandenberg Air Force Base (AFB).

The cut happened, but the rationale now appears to be different. Senator Max Baucus (D-MT) told reporters, including George Cahlink at Defense Daily, that the 50 missiles would be “used for training and other purposes.”

The Air Force occasionally test fires the Minuteman III in events called—I am not making this up—Glory Trips. And you thought Freak Power died with Dr. Thompson.

So, what gives with the MM III cut?

A Little Background on the Minuteman III

The United States deploys 500 Minuteman III missiles at three bases:

  • 150 missiles at F. E. Warren AFB in Wyoming
  • 200 missiles at Malmstrom AFB in Montana, and
  • 150 missiles at Minot AFB in North Dakota.

Under START I, the missiles at FE Warren AFB each carry a single warhead, while the missiles at the other two bases each carry three warheads, for a total of 1,200 warheads. The START II would have prohibited multiple independently targetable warheads.

Although the United States no longer considers itself bound by START II, the United States is “permanently modifying the capacity of the Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) from its prior capability to carry up to three independent reentry vehicles to a single reentry vehicle system, a process known as downloading.”

The Defense Science Board stated in February 2004 that “all MM IIIs are being converted to a single-RV configuration.”

Downloading is one element of the schedule of reductions consistent with the Moscow Treaty limit of 2,200 operationally deployed strategic nuclear warheads on December 31, 2012.

DOD hasn’t made clear how it plans to reach 2,200, although CBO proposed downloading to 500 missiles with 800 warheads by 2007 as an interim step. In July 2003, Brig Gen Robert L. Smolen, Air Force Director of Nuclear & Counterproliferation, told Adam Hebert at Air Force Magazine that DOD was “looking at eventually of 500 missiles that could be uploaded to as many as 800 warheads.”

Although that was widely reported as evidence that the Pentagon was planning to keep some MIRVs, it struck me as evidence that DOD was merrily continuing on the path outlined by CBO. STRATCOM Commander Ellis basically confirmed that in Congressional testimony:

SEN. NELSON: Well, yesterday, Admiral Ellis, we had talked in the full committee about the Minuteman III. The Nuclear Posture Review and the Moscow Treaty achieved the bulk of the reductions in the deployed nuclear warheads by retiring the Peacekeeper and taking the MIRVs—de-MIRVing the Minuteman IIIs so that Minuteman III has one instead of multiple warheads. There was a recent press report that suggested that the decision to have one warhead on each of the 500 Minuteman IIIs was being reconsidered. Is there any truth to that press report?

ADM. ELLIS: I am aware of no reconsideration of that, sir, and I believe that the modernization program of which we spoke yesterday is still on track, as you and I understand it.

SEN. NELSON: Is there any plan to retain MIRV’ed Minuteman IIIs?

ADM. ELLIS: I’m not aware of any program at all, sir, in that construct. Now, as with all posture and policy reviews, someone may have hypothesized as we look at alternative structures for the future and what combination of reduced vehicle numbers could allow us to do that. But I can assure you that there is nothing in the program of record that alters the information that either you or I have been given about the way ahead for the SERV program with regard to Minuteman III.

So What Happens To Those 50-150 Nuclear Weapons?

All of this raises an interesting question —if STRATCOM wants to go down to 450 missiles, what happens to the displaced warheads?

I can envision two scenarios:

  • 50 Minuteman III ICBMs from FE Warren are deactivated, displacing 50 warheads, resulting in either (1) 50 two warhead MM III or (2) 25 three warhead MM III ICBMs.
  • 50 MM III ICBMs are deactivated from either Minot AFB or Malmstrom AFB, dsiplacing 150 warheads, resulting in either (1) 150 two warhead MM III ICBMs or (2) 75 three warhead MM III ICBMs.

Either way, I have trouble believing that 50-150 warheads are just going into storage.

Picturesque Malmstrom AFB (below) is the likely source of any reductions—The 564th Squadron at Malmstrom is sometimes called the “Odd Squad” because it uses a different communications system. The unit is also nicknamed The Deuce. I can’t make this stuff up. Anyway, The Duece has a big ol’ target on it.

A final issue is the Safety Enhanced Re-entry Vehicle (SERV) program —an effort to replace Minuteman III warheads with re-entry vehicles removed from the decommissioned Peacekeeper ICBMs. The Mk 21 RV from the Peacekeeper is more accurate than the Mk 12 on the MM III, but it is also heavier. That might force some MM IIIs into a 2 warhead configuration, although I am really just guessing here.

Why The Heck Would You ReMIRV the MM III?

STRATCOM might want to reMIRV the MM III to retain the capability to quickly reMIRV the entire force. The Bush Administration has emphasized maintaining what the Nuclear Posture Review called a “Responsive Force”—“the option for leadership to increase the number of operationally delayed forces in proportion to the severity of an evolving crisis.” The draft Doctrine for Joint Nuclear Operations also mentions this capability:

In a developing crisis, the augmentation capability may be required to increase the number of operationally deployed strategic nuclear warheads above the limits of the Moscow Treaty. Such a change to the US operational nuclear force level could only be considered following a US withdrawal from the Moscow Treaty and appropriate action by the President and the Congress.

This strikes me as a really destabilizing posture—one that is likely to stifle efforts to convince Russia to reduce the alert rate of its nuclear forces.

Still, if you buy the “Responsive Force” concept, ICBMs are the least responsive element of the force. Maj. Gen. Franklin J. Blaisdell, then-Air Force director of nuclear and counterproliferation operations, told Adam Hebert that—in contrast to bombers and submarines, which can have additional warheads uploaded in days and months, respecively —the Air Force would require “a year or so” to re-MIRV ICBMs. (Something the Nuclear Posture Review also stated.)

Blaisdell said it makes sense for DOD to make conservative decisions when changing the configuration of US Intercontinental Ballistic Missile forces. It can take more than a year to reverse ICBM changes once they are done, and USAF is already committed to fully retire its 50 Peacekeeper ICBMs that can carry 10 warheads apiece.

Most Minuteman IIIs carry three warheads while others already have been downloaded to one warhead to meet arms control requirements. It is widely believed the majority of the fleet will eventually move to a single warhead, but officials say not before 2007.

Decisions to download ICBM warheads and either dismantle or store them may be among the last the Pentagon makes during the current round of force reductions.

Because of all the equipment that must go to the field and return to the base for each ICBM, “the rule of thumb [to upload a warhead] is about one a week, about 50 a year, [and] we’ve been doing that for a long time,” Blaisdell said. “It’s just a lot of equipment involved” along with safety and security considerations that make ICBM warhead changes a lengthy process.

Presumably, STRATCOM worries that the eliminating all MIRVed ICBMs will result in the atrophy of the Air Force’s ability to go out in the field and re-MIRV missiles.

Practice makes perfect.

What About the Remaining, Single-Warhead MM IIIs?

The idea that STRATCOM may be abandoning the single warhead plan for at least some portion of the MM III force raises an interesting question about the rest of the force.

The Air Force replaced the “bulkhead”—the platform that carries warheads on the Minuteman III—to “permanently” eliminate the capability to carry multiple warheads (at least until you replace the bulkhead again). In the case of START I bulkheads, they were destroyed after removal.

I note one small change in the language submitted in the President’s Budget Request. DOD—in February 2002—requested $24.9 M in FY 03 for ICBM Reentry Vehicle Applications in PE 0603851F ICBM – DEM/VAL to “support the deployed ICBM force with emphasis on the capability to implement arms control treaties/initiatives which direct the Minuteman force to a single RV configuration.” Subsequent budget requests have dropped that very specific language, merely noting the program exists to “explore options to meet future requirements.”

Does this mean that, in addition to reMIRVing some number of ICBMs, the Bush Administration is also going to retain the capability to reMIRV the entire force?

I think that is EXACTLY what that means.

Someone in Congress should ask STRATCOM Commander General Cartwright three questions during his upcoming Congressionalt testimony:

1. Does DOD plan to retain any MIRV’ed Minuteman IIIs?

2. How many nuclear warheads are associated with the 50 MM III ICBMs recommended for deactivation and what will happen to those warheads?

3. How will DOD convert the remaining MM III ICBMs to a single warhead configuration? Does DOD intend to replace the bulkhead? If so, does DOD plan to destory to bulkheads in view of Russian inspectors as done for MM III missiles converted under START I?


  1. Allen Thomson (History)

    Has anybody said whether the single-RV MM III configuration will retain the post-boost vehicle (aka “bus”) of the MIRV version?

  2. Anonymous

    With US deployed nuclear warheads decreasing steadily over time, why do you disbelieve that the warheads would go into storage?

    This seems totally logical to me, although other possibilities couldn’t be ruled out.

  3. mark gubrud (History)

    The Mk 21 warhead from Peacekeeper is not only heavier but also so much larger than the Mk 12 from MM III that I expect it would be used only as a single on MM III. 500 (50×10) 450-kt “MX” warheads migrate to 500 MM3s – wasn’t that once the plan?

  4. Frank Shuler (History)

    I don’t think it’s ever been publicly stated that the reengineered Minuteman III, with Peacekeeper W87 warheads, would use the MK21 RV. There is also, obviously, number issues as well. There were only 50 Peacekeeper missiles installed, so even with spares and such, I doubt if there is an inventory of MK21s large enough to support the rebuilding of 150 Minuteman III ICBMs at Warren AFB. Isn’t that the real reason for the Safety Enhanced Re-entry Vehicle (SERV) program? Either a new RV for the Minuteman is being built to support the W87 or the existing MK12A platform is being remanufactured to “SERV” standards to support the MX W87 payload. (That’s my bet.) So, the real question is how many MIRV warheads can a SERV support? And, will that RV support both the W87 (Peacekeeper MX) and existing W78 (Minuteman III) warheads?

    Frank Shuler

  5. Anonymous

    The nickname for the 564th is not “The Deuce”… it’s just “Deuce”.

  6. Frank Shuler (History)

    Timely event to add to our conversation. Today, the US Air Force launched a MMIII, complete with the MK21 RV, on a test flight to ensure future compatibility with the “MX missile system” and the Minuteman fleet. Maybe there is an existing inventory of RV21s that will support the 150 MMIIIs slated for updating at Warren AFB?

  7. Frank Shuler (History)

    More questions. The Safety Enhanced Re-entry Vehicle (SERV) program is to develop a new RV for the Minuteman III force that is compatible with the W-78 and W87 warheads? Modify the existing RVs to be warhead interchangeable? So, what exactly is SERV?

    While the 150 Minuteman III missiles at Warren AFB have been publicly acknowledged to have been downloaded to a single W-62 warhead configuration to comply with START I, I’m not sure I have ever read in official print the remaining Minuteman IIIs at Minot and Malmstrom have been so “de-MIRVed”. I suspect they are still sitting in their silo with the MK12A RV and three W78 warheads. START II didn’t happen and I bet the “downloading” didn’t either. Jeffrey, can you provide any insight? Thanks!

    Frank Shuler