A recent analysis by Defense One notes that the announcement by the US Air Force that it will award Northrop Grumman $13.3 billion to develop a new intercontinental ballistic missile raises more questions than it answers. First and foremost: what’s the rush? The move greatly complicates the ability of the next administration to revise the Pentagon’s $2 trillion nuclear modernization plan in light of other demands both within and beyond the military budget.
The author of the report argues that it appears that strategic concerns aren’t the only drivers of the new program, known formally as the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent, or GBSD. The establishment of the nuclear triad of sea- and land-based strategic missiles and long-range nuclear bombers had a lot to do with inter-service rivalry within the US armed forces and the competition for funding, rather than being based on a careful calculation of how best to protect the United States from nuclear attack.
The financial and bureaucratic imperatives that gave us the ICBM continue to this day, as evidenced by the highly effective self-promotion campaigns of contractors such as Northrop Grumman and Aerojet, joined in many cases by the Senate ICBM Coalition, a group of senators from states that host ICBM bases or are involved in major development programs for the missiles.
Acting together, this coalition of special interest lobby groups has defeated most efforts to consider the costs and consequences of building new ICBMs, including a proposed amendment to this year’s National Defense Authorization Act, sponsored by Representative Ro Khanna (a member of the Democrats from California), that would have cut $1 billion from the GBSD program and applied the funding to addressing the COVID-19 crisis.
The clout of the ICBM lobby is underpinned by the fact that contractors involved with the program have given $4.1 million to key members of Congress since 2012, and that together Northrop Grumman and its major subcontractors, including Bechtel, Lockheed Martin, and General Dynamics, employ over 500 lobbyists, nearly one for every member of Congress. While obviously not all of these lobbyists work on the ICBM issue, the number of people permanently employed by these companies to promote their interests on Capitol Hill reflects the extent of their political power.
The process through which the new ICBM development contract was awarded raises additional questions. In the lead up to the Pentagon awarding the ICBM development contract, there were two competitors, Boeing and Northrop Grumman. But in June 2019, Boeing pulled out, claiming that the terms of the contract were unfairly tilted in favour of Northrop Grumman. A key complaint was Northrop Grumman’s acquisition of Orbital ATK, the main US producer of solid rocket motors used in ICBMs. Before the acquisition, Orbital ATK had been part of the Boeing team that was bidding to develop the new missile.
Another problem posed by the sole-source award of the ICBM development contract is that the already astronomical costs of the program could rise still further because of the Pentagon’s limited bargaining power in negotiating the contract. The problem could be exacerbated if Northrop Grumman’s missile fails to perform as advertised.
At a minimum, Congress needs to investigate the terms of the contract in detail to make sure the company is held accountable for efficiently spending the billions it is receiving to develop the new system. More importantly, Congress and the next administration should reconsider whether a new ICBM is needed at all.
Former Defense Secretary William Perry hit the nail on the head when he said, “The highest probability of starting a nuclear war is a mistaken launch caused by a false alarm and a rushed decision to launch nuclear-armed ICBMs. Instead of spending billions of dollars on new nuclear missiles we don’t need, we must focus on preventing accidental nuclear war.”
Consistent with this perspective, a June 2020 report by the Union of Concerned Scientists argued that rather than building a new ICBM at an estimated cost of $85 billion to $150 billion, the current generation of ICBMs should be taken off hair-trigger alert and refurbished, as the first of a series of steps towards eliminating land-based nuclear missiles altogether.
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