First military test for Biden: Spend $1.5 trillion to replace nukes?
By John Dorschner
Looking ahead: A crucial early military test for the Biden Administration will be deciding whether to fund a new generation of nuclear missile decades after the Cold War ended.
A bunch of progressive and anti-war groups urge dropping the effort, first financed during the Trump administration.
The issue is one of the “Pentagon’s largest, most expensive, and controversial modernization efforts,” according to Breakingdefense.com, an industry news website,
Altogether, modernizing the “nuclear triad” — missiles delivered by land, air and sea — will cost $1.5 trillion — that’s TRILLION with a TR — according to ArmsControlCenter.Org. That could pay for a hell of a lot of pandemic recovery, healthcare and transportation infrastructure.
Let’s start with the most immediate issue: The 400 Minutemen III buried in silos around Montana, Wyoming and the Dakotas. Each carries a W87 or W78 nuclear warhead with a power of 300 to 475 kilotons. (Hiroshima was hit with 15 kilotons.)
The Minutemen are old. Last August, they marked their half-century of service, according to ABC News. In 2015, the Air Force finished a refurbishment for $7 billion to extend their “lives” through at least 2030.
Under Trump, the Department of Defense started the process to replace them with a new generation missile, confoundingly called the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent. Northrop Grumman was the sole bidder and in September the DOD awarded it $13.3 billion to start designing and engineering work. Ultimately, the Air Force wants 659 GBSDs, with 400 deployed with “the rest used for testing and spares,” reports ArmsControlCenter.org.
Why are the missiles needed? Two reasons, according to the military: One is as a “nuclear sponge,” meaning that the enemy (Russia, China) would “waste” many of its own missiles trying to take out our missiles. It’s a “sponge” because remote areas like the Dakotas would “soak up” the enemy nukes.
The other is for “first-strike capability” — meaning the president just decides to launch them at people he doesn’t like. The idea is that these threats serve as a “deterrent” to enemy nations trying anything that would make the U.S. president angry. (Insert random thought on Trump here.)
In a nuclear war, reports the Arms Control Center, if “the United States were to detect an incoming attack or what looks like an incoming attack, an extreme psychological pressure would be placed on the President to quickly order a launch before the ICBMs could be destroyed in their silos — a sort of ‘use them or lose them’ mentality. This increases the risk of accidental war over a false alarm from the United States’ missile detection system. Indeed, there have been several near catastrophes in the past.”
The advantage of the missiles, military leaders argue, is that they can be launched virtually instantaneously, while it takes a while to get Air Force bombers and Navy subs into position for launch.
Several decades ago, the Brits gave this situation some thought: Ground-based missiles meant that the Ruskies would target Britain locations to take out the threat. The Brits decided no more missiles in the ground. Their system is submarine-based.
In fact, without the Minutemen, the United States still has plenty of capability to destroy the world. The Navy has 14 nuke-carrying subs, each of which can carry up to 20 Trident II D5 ballistic missiles. Each Trident is thought to carry four or five warheads — the 90-kiloton W76–1 or the 455-kiloton W88, reports the Arms Control Center.
That means perhaps the subs carry over 1,000 nukes, each with the power many times that of Hiroshima.
As if this were not enough, the U.S. Air Force has 20 deployed B-2 bombers (each carrying 16 nukes to drop on targets) and 46 operating B-52 bombers (yep, they’re still flying, each with 20 cruise missiles carrying one warhead each).
Now, normally, the defense secretary would be handling the thorny debate about replacing the aging missiles. But Biden’s pick, Lloyd Austin, was a board member of Raytheon, DOD’s №3 contractor — a position that gained him from $750,000 to $1.7 million, according to Bloomberg News.
Because Raytheon is waist-deep in the nuclear muddy (with the contract to build the new bomber part of the triad), Austin said he’d turn over any decisions on the nuclear arsenal to Biden’s pick for deputy secretary, Kathleen Hicks, who is expected to be confirmed soon by the Senate.
Hicks comes from the Center for Strategic and International Studies, which the New York Times reports receives funding from large defense contractors, including Boeing and Lockheed Martin and Raytheon.
During a recent appearance before the Senate Armed Service Committee, she said, “I am worried about the state of the readiness of the nuclear triad, and, if confirmed, that is an area I would want to get my team in place and start to look at right away.”
About that $1.5 trillion figure: That may be a low estimate. The Congressional Budget Office notes that the Pentagon “has frequently underestimated costs for… the acquisition of weapon systems” and that, in general, costs for many areas of the DOD budget “have historically grown more rapidly than they are projected to grow.” That’s especially true with one-bidder or non-bid contracts, like the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent.
Something else to think about, since some strategists say the main threat might now be China: The new ground-based missiles are likely to have a longer range than the present Minutemen, according to Arms Control Central, “though it is unlikely to be able to target countries like China, North Korea, and Iran without flying over Russia.”
Can you imagine an American general calling Moscow: “Hello, Russia, we’ve got some nukes that’ll be flying over your country in a bit, but don’t worry because they’re headed for someplace else.”