Who’s Afraid of an ICBM Review?


The Pentagon’s $ 75,000 grant to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace for a study of options for the earth leg of the nuclear triad sparked howls of protest from amplifiers of the Pentagon’s plan to build a new, known ICBM. officially under the name Ground- Based on Nuclear Deterrence, or GBSD. Senator James Inhofe, R-Okla., And Representative Mike Rogers, R-Ala., Ranking Republicans on the Senate and House armed services committees, argued that the issue had already been well studied and that Carnegie’s effort should be canceled.

Why the uproar? Isn’t it worth spending $ 75,000 to assess whether to go ahead with a program that could cost $ 264 billion over its lifespan, including $ 110 billion for development and supply ? The outrage expressed by Inhofe and Rogers suggests the fear of the outcome of an assessment that could involve questioning the need for a new ICBM or proposing a significant change in DoD’s plans for the system. As noted by James Acton, who is working on the Carnegie study, it “will identify the benefits, risks and unanswered questions associated with a number of alternatives.” It seems like common sense before locking the Pentagon into building a new ICBM that could last until 2075, at a phenomenal cost to American taxpayers.

On the contrary, the Carnegie study should be only one part of a larger effort to determine whether a new ICBM is really needed. Senator Elizabeth Warren, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, called for a technical and budgetary assessment of the potential to refurbish and extend the useful life of the current ICBM Minuteman III fleet as an alternative to the construction of the GBSD. A 2020 report from the Union of Concerned Scientists noted that a number of past assessments, including those by the Air Force, RAND Corporation, and the Congressional Budget Office, suggested that the current ICBMs could be extended until 2045 for tens of billions. less than the cost of building a new ICBM. The Air Force and the RAND Company have since contradicted these earlier findings, but their new claims appear to be based on questionable assumptions as to when the decision point for building a new ICBM rather than sticking to the existing missiles should be. A recent RAND report that partly addresses the question of whether to modernize existing ICBMs or build a new one largely reiterates the Air Force’s own arguments. Hence the need for a new independent assessment, as requested by Senator Warren.

The larger question hanging over this whole debate is whether ICBMs are really necessary. The current US strength of nuclear bombers and hard-to-detect ballistic missile submarines is more than sufficient to deter any country from attacking the United States, and many analysts have concluded that keeping ICBMs in the force is much riskier than getting rid of them. As former Defense Secretary William Perry noted, ICBMs are “some of the most dangerous weapons in the world” because the president would only have a few minutes to decide whether or not to launch them in a crisis. which greatly increases the risk of an accidental nuclear explosion. war based on a false alarm.

So why are we prepared to invest hundreds of billions of dollars in a new ICBM? In part, the motivation of the GBSD is based on outdated thinking that treats the triad of nuclear bombers, submarines and land missiles as sacrosanct, regardless of the current realities of the global nuclear balance. But another powerful reason for rushing forward on a new ICBM is the pig barrel policy: money that will go to major contractors like Northrop Grumman and key states like Montana, Wyoming, Utah, Dakota. North and California for construction and supply of bases. for the new system. The Senate even has an “ICBM Coalition” made up of Senators from four of the five key states mentioned above who have been remarkably successful over the years in blocking any changes in ICBM spending or deployment. And the dozen entrepreneurs involved in the ICBM program have made millions of dollars in campaign contributions to key members of Congress to strengthen their case for building the new system, including hundreds of thousands to advocates like the Senator. Inhofe and Representative Rogers. Campaign money doesn’t always end up in decisions that directly benefit the donor, but it guarantees access that makes it much easier to defend.

As we approach the release date for Team Biden’s Nuclear Posture Review, one can only hope that the administration remains open to further thinking about the future of the ICBM force. Our long-term security depends on it.

William D. Hartung is Principal Investigator at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft and author of “Prophets of War: Lockheed Martin and the Making of the Military Industrial Complex”. Prior to joining the Quincy Institute, he was Director of the Weapons and Security Program at the Center for International Policy and Co-Director of the Center’s Sustainable Defense Working Group.


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