By Daryl G. Kimball
President Joe Biden entered office with a deep knowledge of the dangers of nuclear weapons and the arms race. During the campaign, he said the United States “does not need new nuclear weapons” and “will work to maintain a strong, credible deterrent while reducing our reliance and excessive expenditure on nuclear weapons.”
Realizing that vision will require a sober-minded reassessment of outdated nuclear deterrence assumptions, a fresh look at Trump-era nuclear weapons spending plans, and political courage.
Biden can start by directing his team to put on hold the Pentagon’s scheme to develop, test, and deploy beginning in 2029 a new fleet of 400 land-based, intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). If pursued, the new missile would cost in excess $264 billion over its anticipated 50-year life cycle.
The new weapon—the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD)—is just one part of the staggeringly expensive plan left over from the Trump era to replace and upgrade the entire U.S. nuclear arsenal at a projected cost of upward of $1.5 trillion over the next quarter-century.
This GBSD program pause would deemphasize the role of ICBMs, allow for a serious evaluation of the option of extending the life of the existing force of 400 Minuteman III ICBMs at a lower cost, and provide for the pursuit of deep mutual reductions in the bloated U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals.
Not only is the U.S. nuclear arsenal costly, it is excessive and redundant. The land-based leg of the U.S. nuclear triad is the most destabilizing. U.S. ICBMs are maintained on high alert, ready to launch within minutes of an order by the president. This posture is ostensibly designed to avoid a massive, surprise nuclear attack by Russia, which deploys its own massive, land-based missile force in a similar “launch under attack” posture.
Each country’s deadly ICBM force perversely justifies the existence of the other’s, perpetuating the risk of a massive nuclear exchange that might be triggered by a false alarm or a future cyberattack on nuclear command-and-control systems.
Nevertheless, the U.S. Air Force wants you to believe that ICBMs are needed to act as a warhead “sponge” that requires Russia to expend a large portion of its nuclear inventory in a potential all-out war scenario. This is important, the argument goes, because it would give the United States a numerical advantage in second-strike strategic forces.
Even veteran lawmakers such as Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jack Reed (D-R.I.) seem to accept this bizarre nuclear war-fighting theology. “They can’t risk a ‘first strike’ against us unless they take those out,” Reed told Bloomberg last month.
Such arguments do not hold up. Why would Russia or China deliberately launch a bolt-from-the-blue nuclear first strike against U.S. ICBM fields if, as is the case, this would assure their own annihilation? With or without ICBMs, the United States could still launch a devastating nuclear retaliatory strike from just a portion of its invulnerable fleet of 12 strategic submarines and dispersed bomber-based weapons that can be distributed before the hypothetical adversary nuclear attack.
Just one U.S. nuclear-armed submarine, carrying 160 thermonuclear warheads, each with an explosive yield of 100 kilotons or greater, could devastate a large country and kill tens of millions of people. The reality is that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.
Even if one believes that ICBMs are useful targets in the event of a Russian nuclear attack, why not opt for a cheaper nuclear sponge? Some or all of the existing force of Minuteman III ICBMs can be life-extended for decades more and at a much lower cost. By deferring the GBSD program and extending the existing Minuteman III force, the United States could save at least $37 billion through the mid-2030s, according to a 2017 Congressional Budget Office estimate.
Corporate and military GBSD boosters disingenuously argue against Minuteman III by saying it cannot meet their “requirement” for 400 deployed ICBMs through 2075. That assumes, incorrectly, that the United States needs 400 ICBMs into the indefinite future. Presidents can change outdated military requirements, and future arms reduction agreements can certainly reduce the number of ICBMs.
The reality is that the United States can deter and, if necessary, respond to nuclear attack without the 400 nuclear warheads atop its 400 ICBMs. Today, the U.S. strategic nuclear arsenal is at least one-third larger than necessary to deter a nuclear attack.
Accordingly, Washington can reduce the number of deployed strategic warheads from roughly 1,400 today to 1,000 or fewer, as validated by a 2013 Pentagon review, and challenge Russia to do the same. The ICBM force, which is the most vulnerable to attack and the most destabilizing in a crisis, is the place to start cutting the bloated U.S. arsenal.
As the new Biden administration prepares its fiscal year 2022 spending proposal, which is scheduled for release in May, it should freeze funding for the GBSD program at the 2021 level of $1.5 billion while it undertakes a broader review of U.S. nuclear policy and budget alternatives. Doing so would save $1 billion that could be put toward higher-priority national security needs. That review should include life-extending the Minuteman III and ultimately phasing out ICBMs.