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Why space matters: ICBMs and deterrence

F.E. Warren AFB, Wyo. -- Intercontinental ballistic missiles have played a vital role in deterring aggression for more than 50 years; but what is deterrence and how does it apply in a post 9/11 world?

ICBMs traditionally have been the pillar of strategic deterrence. Remember the old westerns where the sheriff and the bad guy had a shoot out in the middle of town? That's strategic deterrence. Both knew what the other had, and both knew the stakes and risks.

During the Cold War there were different missile systems sustaining the vitality of both the Soviet Union and the United States. The most notable of which was the United States' Peacekeeper, which had a payload of up to 10 MK 21 reentry vehicles and a range greater than 6,000 miles. (In comparison, the Atlas D missile, which was in service between 1960 and 1965, was 72,000 pounds heavier, 10 feet longer and only carried one warhead.)

Peacekeeper was deactivated Sept. 19, 2005, and while the deactivation wasn't specifically outlined in any treaty, the reduction fell under the Strategic Offensive Reduction Treaty (Moscow Treaty). Also, the adaptation of the Minuteman III ICBMs fell under SORT: MMIII missiles were converted from multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles (with up to three warheads) to single reentry vehicles.

The Russian equivalent of the Peacekeeper was the SS-18, which was nicknamed "Satan" by NATO. The Shaquille O'Neal of the ICBM world, Satan could deliver a single 25-megaton nuclear yield in a two-stage, tandem, liquid-propelled inertial guided missile. Satan, like Peacekeeper, has been decommissioned and over 100 SS-18 ICBMs were purchased by a Russian space company called Kosmotras for commercial launches (without the payload of course).

In late 1991, the Soviet Union fell into 15 separate countries and the Cold War ended. Multiple items are blamed for the fall: the crumbling of the Warsaw Pact, the political and economic destabilization from years of communism, the abduction of President Mikhail Gorbachev and the pressure of strategic deterrence by the United States.

Fast forward to Sept. 11, 2001 and the terrorist attacks. There isn't a western stage with the sheriff and the bad guy. In fact, there turns out to be different kinds of bad guys with different threats. Here comes tailored deterrence: instead of being in the middle of the street with the sheriff and the bad guy, it's a poker table. You don't know the other players, you can't see their cards and you don't know if they are pointing a gun at you under the table.

The bad guys at the table include rogue states (which threaten the world's peace with authoritarian regimes, sponsor terrorism or try to proliferate weapons of mass destruction), non-state actors (like rebel groups, insurgents and liberation movements) and of course, terrorists. There's even a guy sitting at our poker table in a hooded sweatshirt--an unknown adversary.

Every four years, the secretary of defense must conduct a comprehensive examination of all aspects of the Department of Defense. From strategy, force structure, force modernization plans, infrastructure, budget plans and other elements of the defense program, the Quadrennial Defense Review establishes the defense program for years to come.

The release of the QDR in February 2006 was a monumental moment: previous QDRs--all conducted before Sept. 11, 2001--focused on traditional threats posed by large, institutional forces. The 2006 QDR recognized uncertainty and surprise by tailoring the 'one size fits all' concept of strategic deterrence to tailored deterrence and thereby addressing the wider range of threats from the players at our poker table.

Tailored deterrence is working smarter, not harder. It's finding what defines the rogue state and convincing them they can't prevail. It's understanding the non-state actor's motivations, who is funding them and what their weaknesses are. It's showing terrorists that bullying doesn't work. And for the unknown, it's accessing their strengths, vulnerabilities and accessibility to our assets.

This brings us back to the sentinel Minuteman III and how a missile system first enacted at Minot Air Force Base, N.D., in 1970 fits into the 2006 employment of tailored deterrence. First, it credibly denies an enemy the benefits or gains sought by his actions. The rational actors will not succeed in conquering a neighboring country because it illegally develops nuclear weapons. Second, the costs imposed are too painful to incur. The rational actors will fail because their terrain will be altered by an ICBM and they can't afford to make their own ICBMs or steal one. Third, ICBMs induce adversary restraint: rational actors do not attack because of the potential consequences.

Maj. Gen. Thomas Deppe, Twentieth Air Force commander, recently stated personnel are a deterrent. Highly trained maintainers, missileers and security forces personnel are at our poker table every moment of every day and they focus on deterrence.

Extending on the general's thoughts, the community is also an integral piece in tailored deterrence: programs like Eagle Eyes ensure the safety and security of the launch facilities, missile alert facilities and military personnel that comprise Warren's 12,600 square-mile missile field.

The fields of Wyoming, Nebraska and Colorado hold 150 MMIII ICBMs, which protect the heart and soul of America, the potential of democracy internationally and freedom of the world. As you can see, ICBMs are the thread in the flag of freedom.