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Why is Biden doubling down on Trump’s nuclear expansion?

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President Biden has disappointed so far in fulfilling his campaign promise to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. national security policy. Most notably, his administration’s fiscal year 2022 budget fully funded every aspect of the Trump nuclear weapons program. The budget even went beyond what was contained in the Pentagon’s preexisting plan, which could cost up to $2 trillion over the next three decades. Congress is now poised to vote on the elements of that plan as it considers the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).

One of the president’s worst budgetary decisions was to substantially increase funding for a new intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) known officially by the antiseptic moniker ground-based strategic deterrent (GBSD). One would hardly know from the name of the system that it risks ending life as we know it.  

Former Secretary of Defense William Perry has called ICBMs “some of the most dangerous weapons in the world,” because the president would have only a matter of minutes to decide whether to launch them in a crisis, increasing the chances of an accidental nuclear war prompted by a false alarm. Given the danger posed by ICBMs, why are we poised to spend $264 billion to build and operate a new one?

One reason for the ill-advised rush to procure a new land-based nuclear-armed missile is simple — pork-barrel politics. Senators from the states with ICBM bases and major ICBM maintenance and development work (Montana, North Dakota, Utah and Wyoming) have for years coalesced in the Senate ICBM Coalition, a lobbying hub that has successfully blocked efforts to reduce spending on or deployments of ICBMs, or even to study alternatives to building a new generation of them.  

ICBM bases create thousands of jobs and significant economic dependency in their host states. But that fact should not be allowed to hold our nuclear policy hostage and prevent efforts to make the world safer by forgoing a new ICBM and reconsidering the need to keep the existing ones. 

Past efforts to rebuild local economies in the wake of base closings have had considerable success. One Pentagon assessment found that in three-dozen examples of base closures, communities were able to band together to create a net total of 157,000 new civilian jobs. Perhaps more importantly in terms of the short-term policy debate, pausing the development of the new ICBM while maintaining current deployments would not diminish employment at existing ICBM bases, resulting in little if any negative economic impact.

But there’s another part of the ICBM lobby that is doggedly determined to go forward with the ground-based strategic deterrent — the contractors slated to develop and build it. Last year, Northrop Grumman received a $13 billion-plus sole source contract to develop the new ICBM, joined by a dozen major subcontractors that include heavy hitters such as Lockheed Martin and Raytheon Technologies. Over the past decade, Northrop Grumman and its biggest subcontractors have made over $1.2 million in campaign contributions to members of the Senate ICBM Coalition, and more than $15 million to members of key committees with the greatest influence over funding for the new missile. Northrop employs 57 lobbyists. Not all of them work on the ICBM issue, but their mere existence is a gauge of the kind of leverage ICBM contractors have with members of Congress. 

Not everyone in Congress accepts the need for a new ICBM. Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) have pressed to cut funding for the system and use the savings to invest in COVID-19 response and prevention. Rep. John Garamendi (D-Calif.) has argued to pause the new ICBM project and modernize current land-based missiles instead, which would buy 20 years to decide whether they are needed at all, at a savings of $37 billion “without any deterioration of our nuclear deterrence.” 

An amendment to that effect was defeated in the House of Representatives’ consideration of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). But even if proposals to reduce funding for or eliminate the new ICBM may not win majority support in Congress in the short-term, they chart the way towards a more sensible, sound and safe nuclear policy in the future. 

President Biden and his national security team should take the views of these congressional leaders into account as they craft a new Nuclear Posture Review that will guide U.S. nuclear weapons policy and spending in the years to come.  

But concerns have been raised about the posture review after the Pentagon removed experienced arms control expert and former House Armed Services Committee staffer Leonor Tomero from overseeing it, apparently under pressure from nuclear hawks who want to constrain the consideration of alternatives to the current nuclear weapons modernization plan. 

Biden should resist these pressures and push his national security team to take real steps to revise our outmoded nuclear strategy along the lines outlined above. It’s the right thing to do, not only because it will save billions of dollars, but most importantly because it will make nuclear war less likely.

William D. Hartung is the director of the Arms and Security Program at the Center for International Policy.

Tags Biden Ed Markey Intercontinental ballistic missile Joe Biden John Garamendi Lockheed Martin Missiles Mutual assured destruction Northrop Grumman Nuclear strategy Nuclear warfare Nuclear weapons of the United States Raytheon Technologies Ro Khanna
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