An unarmed Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile launches during an operational test at 12:03 a.m., PDT, April 26, from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif.

An unarmed Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile launches during an operational test at 12:03 a.m., PDT, April 26, from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. U.S. Air Force / Senior Airman Ian Dudley

A $13 Billion Contract for ICBMs: What’s the Rush?

The deal needs closer scrutiny — as does the purported need for new long-range ballistic missiles at all.

The recent announcement by the U.S. 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 – whoever wins the election in November – to rethink the Pentagon’s $2 trillion nuclear modernization plan in light of other demands both within and outside of the department’s budget.

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.” In keeping with Perry’s view, a June 2020 report by the Union of Concerned Scientists (of which I was a co-author) argues that rather than building a new ICBM at a staggering price tag of $85 billion to $150 billion, the current generation of ICBMs should be taken off of hair-trigger alert and refurbished, as the first steps towards eliminating land-based nuclear missiles altogether.

Unfortunately, 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 as much or more to do with interservice rivalry and the fight for funding as it did with 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 advocacy efforts 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 work on the missiles themselves. Together, this special interest lobby has beaten back virtually every effort to consider the costs and consequences of building new ICBMs, including a proposed amendment to this year’s National Defense Authorization Act, sponsored by Rep. Ro Khanna, D-California, that would have cut $1 billion from the GBSD program and applied the savings to addressing the COVID-19 crisis. 

The clout of the ICBM lobby is underscored 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 numbers employed by these companies are a measure of their political power.

The process through which the new ICBM development contract was awarded raises questions as well. In the initial runup to the Pentagon award of the ICBM development contract, there were two competitors, Boeing and Northrop Grumman. But in June 2019, Boeing pulled out, claiming that the terms were unfairly tilted in favor of Northrop Grumman. A key complaint was Northrop Grumman’s acquisition of Orbital ATK, the main U.S. 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. 

One 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 in the first place. 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 take a fresh look at the question of whether a new ICBM is needed at all.

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