One of the first questions outgoing Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., asked retired Gen. Lloyd Austin at his confirmation hearing was whether he supported the nuclear triad. Specifically, Inhofe said, “you agree that the triad — the land-, air- and sea-based platforms — are still necessary even though we hear a lot of arguments that two of the three would be adequate?”
Austin’s response was: “I believe that the triad has served us well in the past, and I certainly believe that it will continue to do so going forward, and I personally support the triad.”
Now that he has been confirmed as secretary of defense, Austin should reconsider his position.
The Pentagon is embarked on an enormously expensive, across-the-board nuclear modernization plan that includes building new nuclear-armed bombers, submarines and long-range missiles along with new nuclear warheads with which to arm them, at a cost that could approach $2 trillion over the next three decades. This is unaffordable in light of the Pentagon’s other priorities and the urgent need to address challenges ranging from the COVID-19 pandemic to climate change to racial and economic injustice.
There are plans afoot or under discussion that would accelerate production of the F-35 combat aircraft; ramp up spending on the troubled KC-46 refueling aircraft; build a new generation of unmanned aerial, ground and naval vehicles; create a 500-ship Navy; and increase investments in artificial intelligence, cybersecurity and hypersonic weaponry. Add in a costly nuclear weapons buildup, the administration’s ability to craft a reasonable defense budget that leaves room for spending on other urgent priorities goes out the window.
It’s not just a budgetary issue. The triad as currently configured actually makes us less safe. This is particularly true with respect to the plan to build a new intercontinental ballistic missile — known formally as the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent, or GBSD — at a cost of $264 billion for the missiles and associated warheads. As former Secretary of Defense William Perry has noted, ICBMs are “some of the most dangerous weapons in the world.” Upon warning of a nuclear attack, the president would have a matter of minutes to decide whether to launch them, significantly increasing the chances of an accidental nuclear war based on a false alarm.
There is no need to take this risk, given the fact that the remaining legs of the triad — ballistic missile submarines that are extremely difficult to track and long-range bombers — are more than sufficient to deter any nation from attacking the United States.
Defunding the new GBSD as a first step toward eliminating the ICBM leg of the triad would be a welcome first step in increasing our security while reducing the immense costs of our nuclear arsenal. But taking such a step will face fierce opposition from the ICBM lobby, strategists and policy pundits who have treated the maintenance of the ICBM force as a matter of nuclear theology.
The ICBM lobby rests on two key pillars. The first is the ICBM Coalition, a group of senators from Wyoming, North Dakota, Montana and Utah — sites of ICBM bases or major ICBM maintenance and development activities. The ICBM Coalition has been uniquely successful in blocking even modest changes in ICBM policy, including ensuring that the U.S. retained large numbers of land-based missiles under the New START nuclear arms reduction treaty; keeping the silos of those missiles that have been retired in “warm” status, ready to accept new missiles in the event of a future buildup; and thwarting efforts to look at alternatives to building the GBSD.
The coalition’s priorities were evident in North Dakota Republican Sen. Kevin Cramer’s urging of Austin to pledge to go full-speed ahead with the GBSD during his confirmation hearing.
The other key pillar of the ICBM lobby is made up of ICBM contractors. Last fall, Northrop Grumman received a $13.3 billion sole-source contract to begin development of the GBSD, and it has named a dozen major subcontractors, including heavy hitters like Lockheed Martin, General Dynamics and Raytheon Technologies (a position inherited from its pre-merger legacy company United Technologies Corporation).
Together, these firms spend millions in contributions to key members of Congress with the power to determine the fate of the GBSD, and they have hundreds of lobbyists at their disposal to advocate for their interests, as they did in helping to defeat an amendment by Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., that would have cut $1 billion from the program.
The question of whether to develop the new GBSD is on one level a battle between special interests and the national interest. The jobs and revenues tied to a new ICBM should not be allowed to override the security benefits of forgoing it. At this early stage of the program, the number of jobs involved in developing the GBSD is minimal, and dropping the program would not impact jobs at the ICBM bases.
Eliminating ICBMs altogether would be another story. But if past practice is any guide, a coordinated effort at the federal, state and local levels can create new civilian jobs to replace many of those eliminated due to base closures, should those closures occur. Figuring out how to help communities that are economically dependent on ICBM deployments can and should be part and parcel of an overall review by the Biden administration on the future of the nuclear arsenal in light of emerging national security priorities.
The nuclear triad is not sacred, and at a time of national transition with multiple crises in urgent need of funds and attention, this is a perfect moment to reconsider the need for it.
William D. Hartung is the director of the Arms and Security Program at the Center for International Policy.