The country's three nuclear missile outposts appear safe in this year's round of base closings, but an upcoming Pentagon review of future military strategy could signal major changes.
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WASHINGTON -- The country's three nuclear missile outposts appear safe in this year's round of base closings, but an upcoming Pentagon review of future military strategy could signal major changes.
Release of the report, called the Quadrennial Defense Review, is expected early next year. Military officials and other experts suggest it could reduce the number of missiles or even propose eliminating a base. More likely, some say, is a change in the mission for the bases, located in Montana, Wyoming and North Dakota.
"We all need to work together to challenge our way of thinking," General Lance W. Lord, commander of the Air Force Space Command, said in April at an event in Washington, D.C. "I believe we are truly at a turning point in military history."
Lord, who is responsible for the development and operation of the Air Force's space and missile systems, suggested arming the intercontinental ballistic missiles -- or ICBMs -- with conventional, or non-nuclear, warheads that could hit anywhere in the world, with great precision.
The country's threats are "increasingly asymmetric, harder to track and more agile and more technologically savvy," Lord said.
The report, dubbed the QDR, comes from the highest levels of the Pentagon. Lord said he "can't predict the results."
Andrew Krepinevich, director of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, said converted ICBMs could be used in remote regions, to take out terrorist leaders and other far-flung targets at a moment's notice.
"A ballistic missile is the only thing that can travel enormous distances in a short period of time," Krepinevich said. "The big advantage the missile gives you is speed."
Krepinevich said such a conversion would have little impact on day-to-day operations at the bases, aside from security measures that would change with the absence of nuclear weapons.
Other military experts say that converting missiles is unrealistic, because countries would assume an ICBM missile coming from one of the three bases was nuclear, and launching them could trigger a nuclear response. The cost of conversion would be sky-high, they say, and the United States should not make itself more vulnerable by reducing its nuclear stockpile.
"I do think it's going to be a hard case to make," said Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow in foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank. The ICBMs do not have the accuracy needed for smaller targets that are more common today, he said, and have more potential to harm civilian populations, however remote, than other missiles.
Jack Spencer, a senior policy analyst at the Washington-based Heritage Foundation, said the military should improve its nuclear stockpile, not reduce it. He has suggested building nuclear weapons that are smaller, would bury far into the ground and would have far less fallout. Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld has pushed Congress to fund research on similar "bunker buster" weapons.
The ICBMs "are more or less viewed as not being usable, and if something isn't usable then it doesn't deter anyone," Spencer said.
For now, the 500 ICBMs are getting upgrades expected to last until 2020. The military also is phasing out the last of the larger Peacekeeper nuclear missiles, based at Francis E. Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming.
Members of Congress have mixed feelings about the possibility of change.
Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont. met with Gen. James E. Cartwright, commander of the U.S. Strategic Command, earlier this month to emphasize the continuing importance of nuclear deterrence at Montana's Malmstrom Air Force Base near Great Falls.
"There are still threats out there, which our ICBMs continue to successfully deter, and I feel that our land-based leg is more important to our country's national security than ever," Burns said after the meeting.
Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont., has been more open to change. After a May 24 meeting with Maj. General Frank Klotz, commander of the 20th Air Force, Rehberg said converting nuclear warheads to conventional warheads "would enable the Air Force to involve Malmstrom if the need arose to strike targets half way around the world in one hour or less without using nuclear force."
Rehberg said the changes "could mean a larger role for Malmstrom, so we're closely watching the Quadrennial Defense Review."
Community leaders say they are not too worried about what might happen if conversion of the missiles is ordered. Warren Wenz, a Montana attorney who has led efforts to save Malmstrom from closure this year, said a bigger worry is that the review would call for closing one of the bases.
Christopher Hellman, a defense budget and policy analyst at the Washington-based Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, said that is the least likely scenario.
"Ultimately, I'd like to see us get rid of all of them, but I don't think that will happen in our grandchildren's lifetime," Hellman said.