Jeffrey LewisNew START and Missile Alert Rates

We have a bunch of New START documents now, including the article-by-article analysis and an unclassified summary of the 1251 report. I am still a little puzzled by the proposed treaty compliant force structure, but I think — think — the Administration might have decided to reduce the alert rate of the ICBM force.

New START Documents

There are two sets of documents: One set hosted at the State Department contains the treaty text, protocols, annexes and the article-by-article analysis. The other set, released by the White House, includes information related to the submission of the treaty to the Senate, including an unclassified summary of the 1251 Report.

The 1251 summary contains some additional information on the question we tackled yesterday — what will the New START force structure look like?

• The United States currently has 450 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) silos. The baseline plan will retain up to 420 deployed ICBMs, all with a single warhead.

• The United States currently has 94 deployable nuclear-capable bombers. Under the baseline plan, some will be converted to conventional-only bombers (not accountable under the treaty), and up to 60 nuclear-capable bombers will be retained.

• The United States currently has 14 strategic nuclear submarines (SSBNs). Under the baseline plan, all 14 will be retained. The United States will reduce the number of SLBM launchers (launch tubes) from 24 to 20 per SSBN, and deploy no more than 240 SLBMs at any time.

I am still confused by this. Most of you are observing that “up to” can mean “less than.” Well, yes, I realize that, but what is not clear to me is whether “less than” means the Administration has (1) not made a decision about a treaty compliant force structure, (2) has made a decision but is just not telling us, or (3) that this force structure is treaty compliant in some clever way.

Missile Alert Rates

The last option — that 720 might be the new 700 — is a way of noting that the treaty has very progressive provisions for counting deployed systems — when an ICBM is removed from a silo for maintenance, for example, it no longer counts as deployed. This is a major difference from the 1991 START treaty, which simply counted silos — empty or not.

The treaty is designed to allow the United States and Russia flexibility as both adjust their strategic forces. This design includes notifications for a continuously updated database.

Russia, in particular, wanted that flexibility as it stands up new units and stands down old ones. But the US Air Force might be interested in that kind of flexibility, too.

As I understand it, the Air Force uses a remove and replace system to keep the ICBM force at nearly 100 percent readiness. (98.5 percent, I think). This involves fairly heroic measures, when one considers the size of ICBM bases and their location in the not-exactly-balmy Great Plains. It is sort of crazy to ask someone to drive through a raging snow storm in North Dakota to keep the overall alert rate at 98.5 percent instead of, say, sucking it up at 95 percent for a bit and waiting for things to clear up.

And, of course, this might save money. The Air Force Nuclear General Officer Steering Group (AFNGOSG) was, for a time, been interested in the question of whether lowered requirements for missile readiness might yield a cost-saving in this tight budgetary environment.

Major Stephen Kravitsky wrote a very interesting paper entitled Reducing the Intercontinental Ballistic Missile Alert Rate and the Impact on Maintenance Utilization that looked at some of the potential for cost savings.

Kravitsky’s analysis suggests that one source of savings — more efficient use of maintenance teams — doesn’t really materialize. But the paper is a decent primer on the challenge of keeping an ICBM force at peak alert rates and a window into budgetary debates about alert rates. Moreover, even if the cost savings are small, one can easily imagine that the Defense Department might decide to meet reductions through reduced readiness, rather than actually attempting to cut force structure.

I have only a dim sense of how this might relate to New START. But at least two options appear plausible to me: Either the USAF is going to keep 450 silos, of which “up to” 420 have ICBMs in them at any given time (a readiness rate of 93 percent) or perhaps the Air Force will reduce to 420 silos, which with a 95 percent or 399 would be deployed ICBMs on any given day. (The other 30 silos might be kept around to count against the non-deployed number as a sop to the Senate ICBM Coalition. Oh, yes, there is a Senate ICBM Coalition.)

This is why I am still confused.


  1. FSB

    I think it means the admin does not want to semaphore to the world the exact breakdowns for each leg, much as that would be fun to know.

  2. anon (History)

    I know nothing for certain, but I am hearing things. I’m not sure if the sources are credible. I have heard that the Air Force does plan to eliminate 30 ICBM silos. Really eliminate, as in blow up. I have also heard that some in the Air Force have been thinking about the possibility of taking down a squadron at a time for maintenance, and not keeping the readiness rate at 98%. This would mean that the “nondeployed” silos would basically move around the force, and it would not affect any one base over another. Last I heard this was just a proposal, but, since they don’t have to get to 700 for 7 years, that may be something they put on the “for further study” list. If they do that — eliminate 30 silos, and reduce readiness by taking down one squadron at a time — they get their 700.

    I do know the ICBM caucus is pleased. I also know that the caucus was joined by some contractors in lobbying hard to get this outcome. But then, we knew since we first saw the ninth agreed statement that we were all about saving ICBMs in this way.

  3. bobbymike (History)

    Gen Kehler and Chilton late last year indicated that the US needed a minimum of between 860 to 900 launchers to maintain the extended deterrence posture of the US. I do hope they get to testify to the Senate and explain how 700 launchers still allows the US to fulfill this mission.

  4. Debra Decker (History)

    Can anyone provide insight on this one? Gates says in the WSJ that:
    “Finally, the treaty will not restrict America’s ability to develop and deploy conventional prompt global strike capabilities—that is, the ability to hit targets anywhere in the world in less than an hour using conventional explosive warheads fitted to long-range missiles. These delivery systems—be they land or sea based—would count against the new treaty limits, but if we deploy them it would be in very limited numbers. We are currently assessing other kinds of long-range strike systems that would not count under the treaty.”
    Unless we go space-based (not a great idea), what are we looking at here?

  5. Allen Thomson (History)

    > the ability to hit targets anywhere in the world in less than an hour using conventional explosive warheads fitted to long-range missiles.

    I have a hard time seeing that as other than conventionally armed ICBM/SLBMs. Going halfway around the world at ICBM speeds takes about 45 minutes, more typical ranges less than 30 minutes.

    The question, as always, is where those ICBMs/SLBMs are launched from, where their trajectories go on the way to target, and what the Russians (and eventually the Chinese) are going to think on seeing a launch.

  6. anonymous

    The military usually hopes for the best and plans for the worst. They also want to maximize their flexibility. In that light, 20 is an interesting integer.

    Consider what would happen if the US lost a sub via accident, etc. That would be 20 launchers irretrievably lost, which could not be replaced if there were only 400 silos (i.e., 50 of the current 450 are destroyed). I think most understand that extra bombers are not an adequate replacement for SLBMs or ICBMs.

    Retaining 420 silos, 60 bombers, and 14 SSBNs with 20 tubes each would keep them under the limit of 800 launchers (760 deployed and non-deployed launchers).

    If they kept 60 bombers, 400 MM-III silos with deployed ICBMs, and 12 SSBNs deployed (with 2 in overhaul at any time), they could keep 20 MM-III ICBMs in storage and 20 intact silos for a rainy day in case something happened to an SSBN.

    Or, they could keep a third (or even fourth) SSBN (partially) unloaded in stand-by or transition, with 420 loaded MM-III launchers. This might facilitate SSBN logistics and maintenance.

    Between loading SSBNs and loading silos, my guess would be that there’s more work and time involving loading silos, and that ICBMs would require a longer logistics cycle time than SSBNs. Thus, 60 bombers, 420 loaded silos, 10 fully loaded SSBNs, and 2 partially loaded SSBNs (no more than 20 SLBMs between then) also fits the bill for the limit of 700 deployed SDVs.

    Just guess, but a combination of worse-case planning and a desire for easing the logistics burden of SSBN operations might be considerations.

  7. John Schilling (History)

    [Prompt Global Strike] ICBM/SLBM-type delivery systems are the obvious technical solution to this “problem”, and the only one with any real chance of being deployed. However, there is substantial interest in using hypersonic air-launched cruise missiles in this application. “Anywhere in the world in less than an hour” is not really in the cards, but “anywhere we care about if we can arrange to forward-deploy some B-52s…” might be workable.

    Mostly, this is just hypersonics researchers and other supporters looking for an application for a technology that turns out to be rather harder and rather less useful than they expected when they started a few decades ago, so it’s not likely to turn into anything real. But it may inform, e.g., policy statements by the SecDef, or the details of arms control treaties.

    Verification is an issue in either case; the simplistic “ICBMs are presumed nuclear while shiny new cruise missiles will of course be seen as conventional”, is probably half-wrong on both counts. If it’s heading in the general direction of Moscow or Beijing, the Russians/Chinese are going to worry that it might be nuclear regardless of trajectory details. There are confidence-building measures we could take, in either case, to reduce that concern.

  8. Gridlock (History)
  9. anon

    Regarding the 700 versus 720. First, the 700 is a “soft” limit on deployed systems. For example, both sides are allowed up to ten test heavy bombers that do not count against the 700, etc. The 800 limit is a “hard” limit. It counts both deployed and non-deployed and leaves less flexibility to adjust the number by pulling a missile from a tube, putting a bomber in repair, etc. The real question will be how the 800 limit is met seven years after treaty entry into force. Achieving the 700 limit will likely then be very easy, and may change somewhat even on a day-to-day basis.

    Regarding conventional global strike mentioned in previous comments, any conventional system fired from an aircraft does not count towards any of the limits. Any missile system that is not “ballistic” over most of its flight path is not considered an ICBM or SLBM. Any missile launched (or contained) only from a sea-based platform other than a submarine would be neither an ICBM nor an SLBM. (SLBMs are ballistic missiles with ranges in excess of 600 Kms any one of which has been contained in or launched from a submarine.) And finally, per the Article-by-Article of Article V of the Treaty, future strategic range non-nuclear systems that do not otherwise meet the definitions of the treaty would not be “new kinds” to which the treaty would apply.

    I think the above leaves a number of possibilities for conventional global strike that would be outside the treaty.