The commander of the Air Force Space Command denied yesterday that his 500 nuclear-armed Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles are mere "Cold War icons" and said he is preparing alternative uses for the ICBMs, including arming them with conventional warheads to attack surface or deeply buried targets.
Saying that the last of 50 Peacekeeper, 10-warhead ICBMs will be deactivated by September, Gen. Lance W. Lord appealed to a National Defense University Foundation audience to create a new generation of "wizards of Armageddon." That was the name given by author Fred Kaplan to the post-World War II strategists at the Rand Corp. and elsewhere who sold the country on strategic nuclear deterrence as a way to combat the Soviet Union.
"We are at a turning point," Lord told an audience that included representatives of major missile contractors, "and need new strategies to deter the challenges of the 21st century."
He said that over the next several months, he will brief Defense Department senior officials on alternative uses for the land-based ICBM force that would include missile defense missions, the ability to make precision strikes anywhere in the world in less than an hour and war-fighting missions in space.
He said the missile force still deters rogue nations because "it forces adversaries to think before they act." But, he added, he is exploring "future uses for these systems," and he called for help in "changing the professional mind-set" that considers them Cold War relics.
Although little mention is made these days of the nuclear-tipped missiles, they remain on alert 24 hours a day as they have since 1959. The last Peacekeeper missiles are being deactivated, leaving the Minuteman IIIs on alert. The future of those missiles is uncertain, however, as the United States takes steps to reduce its arsenal of nuclear warheads delivered by ground-based missiles, submarine-launched missiles and strategic bombers.
Lord called the Minuteman IIIs -- which sit in silos in Wyoming, Montana and North Dakota -- "great hardware" and said they have been maintained at 99.5 percent missile alert rate.
He did note that the entire force, the last of which was produced 27 years ago, must be modernized, including adding new electronics and communications abilities and repouring the solid propellants that power the first two rocket stages.
The ICBMs have been a central feature of the Space Command's 39,000-person force since its organization in 1982. But increasingly, future control and exploitation of space have taken precedence over intercontinental missiles. Lord yesterday emphasized such operations as defensive and said offensive space operations are needed because so much U.S. military activity on the ground depends on space satellite systems.
"We have an asymmetrical advantage in space," Lord said, adding his concern that the nation must harden its satellites and be prepared to take tough action against any foreign attempts to interfere with U.S. space assets.
Lord's concerns about the Space Command's future are reflected in his interest in new space-launch rocket programs to carry satellites into space and in research on suborbital space vehicles that, in the future, could carry conventional weapons from the United States anywhere in the world and return to their base.