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Research Questions

  1. What is the most cost-effective option for modernizing the current intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) force?
  2. What is the most cost-effective option for ICBM basing?
  3. What are bounds on ICBM effectiveness and lethality for the range of possible alternatives?
  4. How would further force reductions impact current Air Force organizational structure — in particular, key nuclear specialty career fields?

In the lead-up to the Air Force Ground Based Strategic Deterrent Analysis of Alternatives, RAND was asked to examine and assess possible intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) alternatives against the current Minuteman III system and to provide insights into the potential impact of further force reductions. The researchers developed a framework consisting of five categories — basing, propulsion, boost, reentry, and payload — to characterize alternative classes of ICBM and to assess the survivability and effectiveness of possible alternatives. Using existing cost analyses and cost data from historical ICBM programs, they derived likely cost bounds on alternative classes of ICBM systems. Finally, they developed force reduction scenarios, examined their impacts on several key nuclear specialty career fields to understand the implications of reductions on the current organizational structure, and compared sustainment and requirement profiles within the various reduction scenarios.

Key Findings

Incremental Modernization and Sustainment of the Current Minuteman III (MM III) Force Is a Cost-Effective Alternative

  • The Air Force successfully demonstrated its ability to extend the service life of the MM III at low cost and low program risk through service life extension programs (SLEPs).
  • SLEPs may have to also be considered for supporting systems, such as silo refurbishment and communications.
  • Sustaining MM III and gradual upgrades is a relatively inexpensive way to retain current intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capabilities.
  • Any all-new ICBM system will likely cost almost twice (and perhaps even three times) as much as incremental modernization and sustainment of the MM III system. Therefore, any argument for developing a wholly new alternative is either increased capability or changed threat.
  • The biggest hurdle currently standing in the way of continued SLEPs beyond 2030 is the declining number of missile bodies due to required test launches.

Silo Basing Will Likely Continue to Be the Most Cost-Effective Option for the Foreseeable Future

  • Currently, only Russia could effectively attack U.S. intercontinental ballistic missiles.
  • The vulnerability of U.S. ICBMs to a Russian preemptive strike may not be of nearly as much concern as it was during the Cold War.
  • Silo basing is survivable against all other potential nuclear adversaries.

Systems Other Than the ICBM May Be More Effective in Certain Situations

  • If overflight is a concern, bombers and submarine-launched ballistic missiles may be more appropriate.
  • Conventional payloads could also be considered.

Significantly Reducing the DoD Budget Could Have a Significant Impact on the ICBM Program

  • It would make replacing Minuteman III (MM III) difficult.
  • In a period of budgetary austerity, the U.S. Air Force's ability to modernize strategic forces at low cost and low program risk is an important consideration for future decisions.
  • Decreasing the MM III force to 300 or below will impact key nuclear career fields.


  • Incremental modernization and sustainment of the current Minuteman III (MM III) force is a cost-effective alternative that should be considered within the Analysis of Alternatives (AoA).
  • The AoA should focus on the nuclear capabilities necessary to credibly deter attacks from established nuclear powers and to provide an effective counterforce capability against hostile emerging nuclear states in dangerous situations.
  • The AoA could consider conventional payloads, but only as an option for some ICBM designs should the need arise.
  • Cost and survivability assessments should limit basing options to existing missile silos and infrastructure for the foreseeable future.
  • If the number of ICBMs decreases below 300, the Air Force will need to adapt its manpower policies to avoid mismatches within the nuclear specialty career fields.

Research conducted by

The research described in this report was sponsored by the United States Air Force and conducted by RAND Project AIR FORCE.

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