The United States has dismantled its entire fleet of Peacekeeper missiles, the most modern, powerful and capable inter-continental ballistic missiles in the U.S. arsenal. The dismantling was completed last September, in keeping with a treaty President Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin signed in 2002. The treaty calls for the nuclear arsenals on both sides to be reduced by two-thirds by the year 2012. Experts say both countries will still have plenty of nuclear missiles for defense and deterrence, but there are questions about what will happen to those nuclear deterrents in the future. VOA's Al Pessin reports from the Pentagon.
The de-activation of the last of the U.S. military's 50 Peacekeeper missiles, also known as MX missiles, and their 500 independently targeted warheads was, in a way, a major event.
"It is both substantive and it is symbolic," said Lieutenant General Frank Klotz, the deputy commander of U.S. Air Force Space Command and one of the military's foremost experts on nuclear missiles.
"The substantive aspect of it is we've removed from our active arsenal 50 of our most capable, our most modern and our most powerful inter-continental ballistic missiles, with the capacity of up to 500 warheads from military service. It's also symbolic in the sense that it indicates an achievement, or a step toward achieving our president's objective of achieving the lowest possible level of nuclear weapons consistent with our national security needs as well as those of our friends and allies," he said.
But the dismantling of the last Peacekeeper missile went almost unnoticed. Experts like Philip Coyle say that is because the United States has plenty of other land-based nuclear missiles, as well as sea- and air-based nuclear forces. "We have more than enough nuclear weapons as it is now, and don't need more. The issue that the United States faces with its nuclear weapons is a longer term issue," he said.
Mr. Coyle is a senior adviser at the private research group the Center for Defense Information, and spent six years as an assistant secretary of defense during the Clinton administration.
"The really grand issue with nuclear weapons is should all of those countries who have nuclear weapons try to keep replacing them with new ones, or should the world's nuclear powers gradually build down their stockpiles and get rid of them so this is simply not an issue for the long term future," he said.
The long term future is the subject of much discussion among experts like Mr. Coyle and inside the Bush administration. A government document called the Analysis of Alternatives of the Land-Based Strategic Deterrent is several months overdue, and is still being reviewed by senior defense officials.
But General Klotz at Space Command says the short-term plan is in place. "The thinking, at least from the perspective of Air Force Space Command, is at least initially the idea would be to continue the process which we are already doing of upgrading the Minuteman Three missile(s). So at the end of the day, you might have a missile which is based upon Minuteman Three capabilities and technologies, but has some very substantial differences from the missile which exists today," he said.
The first generation of Minuteman missiles went into production in 1961, more than 20 years before the Peacekeepers were put into service. But the Minutemen have been upgraded several times and further enhancements to the most advanced version of the missile are in progress.
General Klotz says the newer missiles were de-activated, rather than the older ones, specifically to reduce international tension, as provided under the treaty with Russia.
"Over the course of the history of negotiations between the United States (and) first Soviet Union and then Russia, one of the objectives which we were driving for was to enhance what's called 'Strategic Stability.' And the idea is that one of the most stable situations is where you have intercontinental ballistic missiles with fewer numbers of warheads," he said.
General Klotz says the Minuteman missiles should be able to provide the land-based portion of the U.S. nuclear defense and deterrence force at least until the year 2020. Beyond that, he will not speculate.
Some experts say the Minutemen can continue to function in that role for 50 years or more beyond 2020. But others say a new generation of missiles and warheads will be needed for land, sea and air forces, along with renewed nuclear testing as part of their development. And that is something the world's nuclear powers have agreed not to do, at least for now.
The first indication of long-term U.S. nuclear missile policy should come in the Analysis of Alternatives document, which is expected to be published soon.