Why are all of America's nuclear missiles aimed at Russia?

The U.S. has 450 active ICBMs, but here's the catch: They can really only be used to attack Russia

(Image credit: (Adam Tanner/Reuters/Corbis))

Out of sync with the times, ICBMs are a singular weapon in a multi-variable world.

The Soviet Union collapsed more than two decades ago, but the United States has continued to keep these dangerous relics of the Cold War on a hair trigger, controlled by officers prone to alarming behavior, and all ready to wipe Russia off the map at a moment's notice.

And that's the problem. We have 450 active ICBMs, but because of geographical constraints, they can really only be used to attack Russia.

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Due to the location of missile silos and launch trajectories, to hit targets in East Asia or even the Middle East, American missiles would first have to fly over parts of Russia. Needless to say, nuclear missiles streaking over Russian territory would trigger alarms and likely a retaliatory attack.

While still formidable, Russia is no longer the only nuclear power that keeps the president up at night. China's growing assertiveness and military capabilities, an unstable nuclear-armed North Korea, and Iran's nuclear overtures all make America's leaders incredibly uneasy. In light of this new reality, America's nuclear strategy — which employs what's known as the nuclear triad of ICBMS, submarines, and bombers — must become nimbler and more flexible to face future threats, while still acting as a fierce deterrent.

Luckily, we already have the answer: The other two parts of that triad — U.S. missile submarines and B-2 strategic bombers — can send nuclear weapons anywhere in the world without inadvertently starting a war with the world's second-most nuclear-armed country. They also provide other safeguards in the event of a nuclear attack.

Unlike ICBMs, a submarine's location at any given point in time is unknown to an enemy, making it an elusive target that can better ensure the principle of mutually assured destruction. More importantly, without the need to launch within seconds, bombers and submarines can take the time to verify a false warning and prevent a false launch.

If that wasn't reason enough to ditch the Cold War relics, ICBMs actually increase the threat of nuclear war because they basically require an itchy trigger finger. To survive an attack, ICBMs must be launched within seconds, minutes at most, leaving little time to verify a false warning. As it stands, only Russia has a nuclear arsenal large enough to even consider attacking American ICBMs, but with the Cold War over, there is little political incentive for the Russians to initiate Armageddon.

Supporters of ICBMs argue that America needs an overwhelming numerical superiority in nuclear weapons to deter other countries from pursuing their own or building up stockpiles that would create an imbalance in global nuclear power.

But to put things in perspective, the United States has a total inventory of 4,650 nuclear weapons, including nearly 2,000 actively deployed warheads. Russia has roughly the equivalent and is working with the United States to reduce stockpiles. In contrast, China possesses an estimated 300 nuclear weapons, or roughly 6 percent of the U.S. stockpile. Just one of the U.S. Navy's 14 Ohio-class nuclear submarines can hold as many as 288 warheads (although they are only permitted to carry 192, still more than enough to level cities and kill tens of millions).

Even if the United States were to reduce its arsenal to 900 nuclear weapons, as former Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. James Cartwright suggests, America would still have three times as many weapons as China, and it would take years for China to come close to U.S. levels and capabilities.

So why does America need ICBMs when nuclear bombers and submarines are safer, more resilient, and deadlier?

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Eugene K. Chow is a speechwriter and freelance journalist. He is the former executive editor of Homeland Security NewsWire. Previously, he was a research assistant at the Center for A New American Security, a Washington-D.C. based think tank.