VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, CALIFORNIA – The U.S. military planned to test-fire its second intercontinental ballistic missile in a week overnight on Thursday to demonstrate the reliability of American nuclear arms at a time of rising strategic tensions with countries like Russia and North Korea.
The unarmed Minuteman III missile was to blast off from a silo at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California late on Thursday or early on Friday, headed toward a target area near Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands of the South Pacific.
Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work said the tests, conducted at least 15 times since January 2011, send a message to strategic competitors like Russia, China and North Korea that the United States has an effective nuclear arsenal.
“That’s exactly why we do this,” Work told reporters.
“We and the Russians and the Chinese routinely do test shots to prove that the operational missiles that we have are reliable. And that is a signal . . . that we are prepared to use nuclear weapons in defense of our country if necessary,” he added.
Demonstrating the reliability of the nuclear force has taken on additional importance recently because the aging U.S. arsenal is near the end of its useful life and a spate of scandals in the nuclear force two years ago raised readiness questions.
The Defense Department has poured millions of dollars into improving conditions for troops responsible for staffing and maintaining the nuclear systems. The administration also is putting more focus on upgrading the weapons.
President Barack Obama’s final defense budget unveiled this month calls for a $1.8 billion hike in nuclear arms spending to overhaul the country’s aging nuclear bombers, missiles, submarines and other systems.
The president’s $19 billion request would allow the Pentagon and Energy Department to move toward a multiyear overhaul of the atomic arms infrastructure that is expected to cost $320 billion over a decade and up to a trillion dollars over 30 years.
The nuclear spending boost is an ironic turn for a president who made reducing U.S. dependence on atomic weapons a centerpiece of his agenda during his first years in office.
Obama called for a world eventually free of nuclear arms in a speech in Prague and later reached a new strategic weapons treaty with Russia. He received the Nobel Peace Prize in part based on his stance on reducing atomic arms.
“He was going to de-emphasize the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. national security policy . . . but in fact in the last few years he has emphasized new spending,” said John Isaacs of the Council for a Livable World, an arms control advocacy group.
Critics say the Pentagon’s plans are unaffordable and unnecessary because it intends to build a force capable of deploying the 1,550 warheads permitted under the New START treaty. But Obama has said the country could further reduce its deployed warheads by a third and still remain secure.
Hans Kristensen, an analyst at the Federation of American Scientists, said the Pentagon’s costly “all-of-the-above” effort to rebuild all its nuclear systems is a “train wreck that everybody can see is coming.” Kingston Reif of the Arms Control Association, said the plans are “divorced from reality.”
The Pentagon could save billions by building a more modest force that would delay the new long-range bomber, cancel the new air launched cruise missile and construct fewer ballistic submarines, arms control advocates said.
Work said the Pentagon understood the financial problem. It would need $18 billion a year between 2021 and 2035 for nuclear modernization, which is coming at the same time as a huge “bow wave” of spending on conventional ships and aircraft, he said.
“If it becomes clear that it’s too expensive, then it’s going to be up to our national leaders to debate” the issue, Work said, something that could take place during the next administration when spending pressures can no longer be ignored.