Across five Western states — under farmland, windblown fields of grazing cattle and Great Plains plateaus — 400 aging nuclear-armed ballistic missiles stand at the ready. From a distance, the isolated, fenced-off areas look like they might be for wells pumping water or fiber optic cable repeaters. What is underground, however, is neither water nor the internet, but weapons so powerful that, if used or attacked, could alter global climate and end civilization.
It falls to the Biden administration to decide the fate of America’s ground-based missiles — ICBMs, intercontinental ballistic missiles — either extending their life, replacing them with newer models or filling the silos with concrete and ending almost 60 years of maintaining an atomic arsenal on the High Plains. The decision should be clear. Today, effective deterrence doesn’t require all three legs of a nuclear “triad” — ground- and submarine-based missiles and bombers. It is best achieved by keeping warheads mobile at sea or in the air, not in holes in the ground whose location has not changed in decades.
Before the first Nixon-era arms control agreements, Washington and Moscow raced to produce more nuclear weapons. Then a series of treaties eventually limited both sides to the same number of deployed long-range nuclear weapon delivery systems and warheads, currently set at 700 and 1,550, respectively. Today each side achieves those limits with its own mix of bombers and sea- and ground-based missiles, striving for numerical equivalence.