By William D. Hartung
As former Secretary of Defense William Perry noted, intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) are “some of the most dangerous weapons in the world” because the president would only have a matter of minutes to decide whether to launch them in a crisis, thus greatly increasing the risk of an accidental nuclear war.1
President Joe Biden has an opportunity to mitigate this threat as he and his administration consider a Pentagon spending plan that is on track to invest $500 billion to maintain and replace the U.S. nuclear arsenal through 2028. One major decision involves the future of ICBMs.2
Over the years, there have been numerous proposals for reducing this risk, from adopting a policy of no first use of nuclear weapons to eliminating ICBMs altogether. A June 2020 report makes the case for taking ICBMs off high alert and forgoing the development of a new ICBM as first steps toward taking these systems out of the U.S. arsenal.3 A nuclear force consisting of nuclear-armed bombers and submarines would be more than sufficient to deter any other nation from attacking the United States. As MIT’s David Wright has noted, “[S]ubmarines are virtually undetectable and therefore invulnerable at sea, while ICBMs are sitting ducks. Their vulnerability has prompted the Air Force to keep them on high alert, which is dangerous and could trigger a nuclear war.”4
The commonsense case for a dyad of submarine-launched ballistic missiles and a reserve bomber force is made in detail in the alternative nuclear posture put forward by the disarmament organization Global Zero. That proposal would shift the U.S. nuclear strategy from one that engages in planning for elaborate and dangerous nuclear war-fighting to one that establishes the nuclear arsenal as a second-strike force meant to deter nuclear attacks against the United States and its allies—a deterrence-only strategy.5
A recent poll found that 60 percent of Americans favored either forgoing the development of a new ICBM, eliminating ICBMs, or eliminating all nuclear weapons, an indication that a change in current ICBM policies would have significant public support.6 In addition, nearly two-thirds of respondents expressed a preference for delaying the new ICBM, known formally as the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD), while continuing to extend the life of existing land-based missiles as the GBSD program undergoes a comprehensive review.
Despite that, there has been little progress in changing U.S. policy on the procurement or deployment of ICBMs, in significant part due to the activities of the ICBM lobby: nuclear weapons contractors and their allies in Congress. ICBMs have been sustained as much by parochial interests as they have by strategic need. Support for a new ICBM is tied closely to the money to be made in developing, building, deploying, and maintaining it. The Pentagon is slated to spend more than $110 billion to develop and buy the missiles and related warheads; the total price tag is projected to exceed $264 billion once the costs of operating and supporting the systems are taken into account.7
Inside the ICBM Lobby: The ICBM Coalition
One reason the ICBM force and the bases that house it have survived criticisms of their strategic utility within and outside of government has been the staunch support of the ICBM Coalition, a group of U.S. senators from states where ICBMs are deployed and maintained. The composition of the coalition has shifted over the last decade as members leave Congress and are replaced, but it has always been a bipartisan group, including senators from Montana, North Dakota, and Wyoming, where the nation’s three ICBM bases are located, and from Utah, where the missiles are maintained and developed.
On key issues, the coalition has drawn support from other advocates of the nuclear triad, including senators from Louisiana, the home of Barksdale Air Force Base, which hosts the Air Force Global Strike Command and three squadrons of B-52H bombers. The coalition has been largely successful in fending off changes in the number of ICBMs, the number of bases where they are deployed, and any initiatives that might make it easier to reduce the ICBM force in the future or delay or cancel the new ICBM, the GBSD system.
Senators from states with an economic stake in the ICBM mission have included Republican senators John Hoeven (N.D.), Kevin Cramer (N.D.), Steve Daines (Mont.), Mitt Romney (Utah), Mike Lee (Utah), and John Barasso (Wyo.) and Democratic Senator Jon Tester (Mont.). Senator Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.), who replaced Senator Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) at the end of 2020, has been a vocal proponent of ICBMs and the ICBM mission and introduced several pro-ICBM amendments while a member of the House of Representatives.
Tester will have an especially influential role as the new chairman of the Senate Appropriations defense subcommittee. In an interview conducted shortly after he took charge of the defense panel, Tester called ICBMs “an incredible deterrent” and urged moving forward with the GBSD system. He noted, however, that he had “never served on any of the committees that give classified briefings on the threat. So we’ll be getting briefings moving forward about the threat and the deterrent levels of those ICBMs.”8
Over the past decade, the ICBM Coalition has succeeded in limiting the reduction of deployed ICBMs under the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty to 50, leaving a force of 400; keeping the 50 unused silos in “warm status,” ready to receive missiles again should there be a shift in U.S. nuclear policy requiring deployment of additional ICBMs; preventing the Pentagon from doing a study of the environmental and economic impacts of further reductions in the ICBM force; and helping to support the Pentagon’s plans for development of the next-generation ICBM. In doing so, the coalition has taken dozens of actions, including writing letters to five defense secretaries and a succession of chairs of the Senate Armed Services Committee and arranging meetings with key Pentagon and military officials, to make the case for continuing the ICBM mission. The coalition has also advocated for amendments restricting the Pentagon’s ability to reduce or take modest steps that could eventually lead to a reduction of the ICBM force.
Members of the Senate ICBM Coalition have benefited from generous campaign contributions from Northrop Grumman and its major subcontractors on the ICBM program (table 1).
The ICBM Lobby: ICBM Contractors
Northrop Grumman emerged as the sole contractor bidding for the new ICBM and won a $13.3 billion contract for the development phase of the system in September 2020. The company flexed its lobbying muscles in 2019 when it helped kill an amendment that would have required the Pentagon to explore alternatives to the GBSD system. In July 2020, it lobbied vigorously to block an initiative by Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) that would have cut $1 billion from the budget for the new ICBM. The company will only have more lobbying clout going forward because it has named a dozen major subcontractors to work on the project while claiming that the next phase of work will generate 10,000 jobs nationwide.9 Northrop Grumman has provided no documentation for its jobs estimate.
The Northrop Grumman team has powerful tools at its disposal for fending off any changes in the ICBM program. The company and its major subcontractors have given $1.2 million to the current members of the Senate ICBM Coalition since 2012 and more than $15 million over the same time period to the 64 members of the key committees that play a central role in determining how much is spent on ICBMs: the Senate and House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittees and the Senate and House Appropriations defense subcommittees.
Perhaps even more important than campaign contributions are the extensive lobbying operations of ICBM contractors. The top 11 contractors working on the new ICBM spent more than $119 million on lobbying in 2019 and 2020 and employed 380 lobbyists (table 2).10 Although obviously not all of these lobbyists were employed to work on the ICBM issue, the substantial lobbying resources of the ICBM contractors give them preferred access to key members of Congress and help build relationships that can be leveraged for a variety of purposes.
Many of the lobbyists who work on behalf of ICBM contractors have passed through the “revolving door” from work in top governmental posts to work in the arms industry. For example, Northrop Grumman, the prime contractor for the next-generation ICBM, employed 51 lobbyists, in house and for hire, in 2020, 41 of whom came from positions in government. Prominent examples of revolving-door hires in that group have included Howard P. “Buck” McKeon, former California Republican chairman of the House Armed Services Committee; G. Stewart Hall, the former legislative director for Senator Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), who is the ranking member on the Appropriations Committee; and Bud Cramer, a former Democratic representative from Alabama who served on the appropriations defense subcommittee and was a strong advocate for defense-related activities. Others are Jonathan Etherton, who once was a Senate Armed Services Committee professional staff member, and Shay Michael Hancock, a former staffer for Senator Patty Murray (D-Wash.), who serves on the Budget Committee. Hancock also worked for House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.).
Another major lobbyist for Northrop Grumman is former Senator Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), who led the charge against ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, opposed New START, and is a staunch supporter of the Pentagon’s nuclear modernization program. In 2017 and 2018 alone, Kyl earned $1.9 million working for Northrop Grumman and other clients.
ICBMs and the Jobs Argument
The greatest leverage that ICBM contractors can bring to bear in support of their projects comes from their claims about the jobs generated in key states and congressional districts by the development and production of the GBSD system. Northrop Grumman has claimed that there will be 10,000 new jobs associated with the development phase of the project. This is a tiny fraction of a national work force that is approaching 160 million people, but the jobs impact is still politically important in key states and localities. A map on the Northrop Grumman website identifies more than 125 facilities run by ICBM suppliers in 32 states, averaging 80 jobs per facility. Obviously, some sites will have more than others, but this figure is indicative of the fact that most of the places represented in the 125 facilities will have a minimal number of GBSD-related jobs. As history has proven, proponents’ claims of the numbers of jobs and production locations for projects like the GBSD system are often exaggerated. Despite requests by the author, Northrop Grumman did not provide documentation for its estimates.
The strongest parochial interest in the ICBM mission comes from the states where ICBM bases are located. A closure or scaling back of activities at any of the three ICBM bases, which now employ a combined 13,000 personnel, would have a substantial impact on the state and local economies. Even so, the communities at these sites in Cheyenne, Wyoming; Great Falls, Montana; and Minot, North Dakota, would be well advised to diversify their economies as much as possible and do advance planning to provide alternatives in case their local facility is downsized or closed. Despite the strong lobby in favor of keeping and modernizing the ICBM force, strategic and budgetary pressures could still lead to a reduction or elimination of the force in the years to come.
There is a significant record of communities recovering from base closures over time, often creating more civilian employment than the base itself provided, but each case is unique. Successful conversion by no means is guaranteed, but the Pentagon’s Office of Economic Adjustment, which was established to help communities cope with the impact of base closures or reductions in defense manufacturing activities, in 2020 completed an unpublished report on 35 successful base conversions in 19 states. It concluded that after the military facilities closed, more than 157,000 new civilian jobs were created, more than double the number lost at the time of the base closure.
Successful cases had some common themes. Specific authorities were established to plan for the transition of the base in question in consultation with government, business, and community representatives. Officials thought creatively, envisioning diverse uses for the land freed up by the base closure, including everything from commuter airports and industrial/research parks to residential areas, parks, and university campuses. Most importantly, leaders commenced planning before a base was closed. Transitions can take years given the need for environmental cleanup, transfer of land, and identification of governmental or private investment funds. Yet, the effort is worth it given the prospect of new economic activity and employment at the sites of closed military facilities.
The Office of Economic Adjustment has recently been renamed the Office of Local Defense Community Cooperation. Although it retains the mission of helping communities adjust to base closures, its website does not emphasize that clearly or strongly, merely stating that it aims “to assist states and communities hosting installations dealing with a changing Department of Defense presence.” The Biden administration should make a point of ensuring that the office maintains its traditional mission of helping states and localities adjust to base closures and give it adequate funds to do the job.
There are better uses of scarce funds than spending tens of billions of dollars on a new ICBM. Whether it involves ICBM bases or ICBM contracting, virtually any other public investment would create more jobs than spending on the GBSD program. For the same amount of money, clean energy and infrastructure create 40 percent more jobs, while health care creates 100 percent more.11 If even part of the savings from canceling the GBSD program and eliminating existing ICBMs was directed toward alternative economic activities, it could provide a significant cushion as the affected communities transition to replace the jobs tied to those facilities.
Different Policy Options, Different Economic Impacts
Different options for the future of the ICBM force would have dramatically different economic impacts. The United States could greatly diminish the risk of accidental war if it adopted a policy of no first use of nuclear weapons or took ICBMs off of high alert. By themselves, such decisions would not necessarily involve any changes in the deployment of ICBMs and therefore would have no negative economic impacts on the communities where they are located.
A second policy option would be to abandon the plan to build a new ballistic missile and rely instead on refurbished versions of existing ICBMs, a substantially cheaper option. A Congressional Budget Office study estimates that the development of a new ICBM could be pushed back by at least two decades by refurbishing current systems.12 A review of studies by the Air Force, the RAND Corp., and the Center for Strategic and International Studies suggests that the life of current ICBMs could be extended even further.13 Forgoing the new ICBM would impact the contractor side of the ledger—the 10,000 jobs that Northrop Grumman claims would be involved in the development phase of the GBSD system—but would not reduce current employment levels at ICBM bases or their communities. Furthermore, because there would be some jobs associated with refurbishing existing ICBMs, the net loss of employment from canceling the GBSD program could be considerably less than 10,000 jobs.
The greatest economic impact would come from eliminating ICBMs altogether, because it could mean closing existing ICBM bases and eliminating potential jobs in the development of the new system. These economic effects would be manageable at the national level, but would require transition assistance for the impacted areas of Montana, North Dakota, and Wyoming.
The Debate Continues
The decision on whether to build a new ICBM should be based on strategic and budgetary concerns, not pork barrel politics. At a time when pandemics, climate change, and racial and economic injustice pose major threats to the safety and security of the United States, it would be wise to shift resources away from unnecessary military programs to address these challenges. The Biden administration and Congress should carefully scrutinize the new ICBM program and consider canceling it outright as a first step toward eliminating the land-based leg of the nuclear triad altogether. The decision on whether to build a new ICBM should be based on the merits, not contractor lobbying and the self-interest of elected officials.
2. Kingston Reif and Alicia Sanders-Zakre, “U.S. Nuclear Excess: Understanding the Costs, Risks, and Alternatives,” Arms Control Association, April 2019, https://www.armscontrol.org/sites/default/files/files/Reports/Report_NuclearExcess2019_update0410.pdf.
3. David Wright, William D. Hartung, and Lisbeth Gronlund, “Rethinking Land-Based Nuclear Missiles: Sensible Risk-Reduction Strategies for U.S. ICBMs,” Union of Concerned Scientists, June 2020, pp. 2–3, https://www.ucsusa.org/sites/default/files/2020-06/rethinking-land-based-nuclear-missiles.pdf.
4. Union of Concerned Scientists, “U.S. ICBMs Are Superfluous and Increase the Risk of Mistaken Nuclear War, Report Finds,” June 22, 2020, https://www.ucsusa.org/about/news/icbms-are-unnecessary-according-union-concerned-scientists.
5. Bruce G. Blair, Jessica Sleight, and Emma Claire Foley, “The End of Nuclear Warfighting: Moving to a Deterrence-Only Posture,” Program on Science and Global Security, Princeton University, and Global Zero, September 2018, https://www.globalzero.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/ANPR-Final.pdf.
6. Aaron Mehta, “Majority of Voters Support ICBM Replacement Alternatives, New Poll Finds,” Defense News, February 5, 2021, https://www.defensenews.com/smr/nuclear-arsenal/2021/02/05/majority-of-voters-support-icbm-replacement-alternatives-new-poll-finds/; Matt Korda and Tricia White, “Public Perspectives on the U.S. Intercontinental Ballistic Missile Force,” Federation of American Scientists, January 2021, https://fas.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/02/Public-Perspectives-ICBM.pdf.
7. Anthony Capaccio, “New U.S. ICBM Could Cost Up to $264 Billion Over Decades,” Bloomberg, October 3, 2020, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-10-03/new-u-s-icbms-could-cost-up-to-264-billion-over-decades.
8. Joe Gould, “New Senate Defense Appropriations Chair Talks Nuclear Modernization, Defense Cuts and Earmarks,” Defense News, March 1, 2021, https://www.defensenews.com/congress/2021/03/01/senate-defense-appropriations-chair-talks-nuclear-modernization-defense-cuts-and-earmarks/.
9. Marcus Weisgerber, “Northrop Announces Suppliers for New ICBM. Boeing Is Not on the List,” Defense One, September 16, 2019, https://www.defenseone.com/business/2019/09/northrop-icbm/159886/. Suppliers include Lockheed Martin, General Dynamics, L3Harris, Collins Aerospace (United Technologies), Textron, Aerojet Rocketdyne, Honeywell, Parsons, BRPH, Clark Construction, Bechtel, and Kratos.
10. For data on lobbyists and lobbying expenditures from the Center for Responsive Politics Open Secrets database, see https://www.opensecrets.org/.
12. U.S. Congressional Budget Office, “Approaches for Managing the Costs of U.S. Nuclear Forces, 2017 to 2046,” October 2017, p. 31, https://www.cbo.gov/system/files/115th-congress-2017-2018/reports/53211-nuclearforces.pdf.