On October 24, at the Warren Air Force base in Wyoming, the United States Air Force lost communication with a sizeable portion of America’s nuclear deterrent: a squadron of 50 nuclear-armed Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). In the past, this type of disruption was rare and limited to individual missiles. The broad scale of this incident, however, resulted in one of the most serious and sizable ruptures in nuclear command and control in history.

The incident comes in the midst of the Obama Administration’s effort to push the U.S. Senate to grant its advice and consent to New START in the upcoming “lame duck” session of Congress. Given that each missile is responsible for covering a number of targets and that New START is set to further reduce the ICBM missile force, the gravity of the incident may have been exacerbated had the treaty been in effect. The 50 ICBMs that went down represent one-ninth of the U.S. ground-based ICBM arsenal.

The Heritage Foundation recently hosted a panel discussion to address New START, a nuclear arms control treaty with Russia, nuclear modernization, and command and control. John Noonan, policy advisor at Foreign Policy Initiative and a former nuclear launch officer, defied official explanations regarding the communication failure by emphasizing that losing control and the ability to talk to your missiles “is a big deal.” He said that over the course of 300 alerts—24-hour shifts in the capsule—he saw this happen to only three or four missiles at most.

Among the main points delivered by the panel was the need for the U.S. to have a reliable command and control over of its nuclear weapons. The panel highlighted the most critical need regarding this reliability: modernization of the U.S. nuclear arsenal. Everything from the missiles and bombers to the technology at command and control remains archaic.

But age is not the only debilitating element to a credible U.S. deterrent. According to Tom Scheber, vice president of the National Institute for Public Policy, the once dynamic nuclear infrastructure has atrophied severely due to lack of funding from government-owned industries, commercial industries, and the Department of Defense infrastructure, which in turn has led to a brain drain that inhibits creative thought and innovation. Consequently, the nuclear infrastructure in the U.S. is in need of a major comprehensive overhaul.

Baker Spring, F. M. Kirby Research Fellow in National Security Policy at The Heritage Foundation, asked two important questions that should be addressed before the Senate can seriously consider ratifying New START:

  1. Is the Obama Administration behind the curve today to stop the nuclear atrophy? and
  2. Does the President’s 1251 report on nuclear modernization, as mandated by Section 1251 of the National Defense Authorization Act for FY 2010, include specific recommendations for the modernization of command and control?

The 1251 sets out a comprehensive plan to maintain delivery platforms; sustain a safe, secure, and reliable U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile; and modernize the nuclear complex. However, it is unclear to the public whether this report covers modernization of command and control systems.

The consensus among the panelists was that the atrophy of the U.S. nuclear infrastructure is a critical problem that needs urgent attention and adequate funding.

Matthew Foulger is a member of the Young Leaders Program at the Heritage Foundation. For more information on interning at Heritage, please visit: http://www.heritage.org/about/departments/ylp.cfm.