The U.S. Air Force launched an unarmed Minuteman III ICBM on an operational test on Oct. 29, 2020, at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif.

The U.S. Air Force launched an unarmed Minuteman III ICBM on an operational test on Oct. 29, 2020, at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. U.S. Air Force / Tech Sgt. Patrick Harrower

The New ICBM Is a Legacy System, And Should Be Cancelled

Antiquated strategic thinking must not be allowed to drain funding that could be put toward more pressing threats.

Press reports indicate that the Biden administration’s Pentagon budget proposal may come in at close to last year’s levels, well over $700 billion. But the Biden administration has suggested that the composition of the budget could change considerably, most notably by cutting spending on “legacy systems.”

The administration has yet to specify precisely what qualifies as a legacy system, but the concept is clear enough: weapons of long standing that may have parochial support in Congress and the military services but are not well suited to addressing future challenges. There is one costly system that is not generally thought of in these terms but should be: the new ICBM — formally known as the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent, but more accurately characterized as a money pit that adds nothing to our defense. As William Perry and Tom Collina have noted, ICBMs make the world a more dangerous place because a president would have a matter of minutes to decide whether to launch them in a crisis, thereby increasing the risk of an accidental nuclear war due to a false alarm.

The new missile is a component in good standing of the nuclear triad of air-, sea-, and land-based nuclear delivery vehicles. As my organization, the Center for International Policy, has detailed in a new report, the triad is a relic of the 1950s and 1960s that was developed as much or more due to interservice rivalry and the fight for shares of the nuclear weapons budget as it was based on a well-thought-out strategic rationale. The triad represented the resolution of that budget battle, with the Air Force getting nuclear bombers and land-based missiles and the Navy getting ballistic missile submarines. 

As defense analyst Benjamin Friedman has pointed out: “The triad grew from bureaucratic compromise, not strategic necessity. After World War II, nukes seemed like the weapon of the future. The Air Force saw their delivery as part of the strategic bombing mission that had just given their service independence. Their ownership of that mission, and eventually land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles, won them budget share at the expense of other services. The Navy, eager to avoid a becoming something like a transoceanic bus service, found an ingenious way to get into the nuclear game: they put missiles on submarines.”

For years, the nuclear triad has been amply funded, and, if the Pentagon has its way, that will continue, in the form of a modernization plan that would devote up to $2 trillion over the next three decades to developing and building new nuclear-armed bombers, missiles, and submarines, along with new warheads to go with them. The new ICBM alone will cost at least $264 billion over its lifetime, an expenditure that is ill-advised given other more urgent priorities, including devoting more resources to dealing with greater security threats such as pandemics and climate change. 

Even at its current massive levels, the Pentagon budget will not be able to accommodate ambitious plans to dramatically increase the size of the Navy, build a new generation of combat aircraft, refueling planes, and unmanned aerial vehicles, and invest in hypersonic weapons, artificial intelligence, and cybersecurity. All of these priorities must be scrutinized, but the case for a new ICBM is the weakest of all.

ICBM boosters would have us believe that a new system is essential for deterrence. But as the organization Global Zero has argued persuasively, a nuclear force made up of difficult-to-detect ballistic missile submarines and nuclear bombers that can be recalled in the event of a false alarm would be more than adequate to the task, and could set the stage for further reductions over time. 

So why is America poised to squander billions on a new ICBM? Antiquated strategic thinking is part of the issue. The other is the powerful ICBM lobby, comprised of Senators from states that host ICBM bases and ICBM development activities, and contractors like Northrop Grumman that stand to profit from building the new system. Northrop Grumman and its major subcontractors have donated over $15 million to key members of Congress over the past decade, and they employ over 400 lobbyists. Although not all of these lobbyists are assigned to pushing for the new ICBM, the sheer size of these companies’ lobbying machines gives them a leg up in Congressional debates over ICBM policies and budgets. Their most potent argument has not been the strategic value of a new ICBM, but the jobs it will purportedly create. But virtually any other use of the same funds would create more jobs than building a new ICBM, including 40 percent more for developing clean energy sources or building much-needed infrastructure.

It’s time to judge the new ICBM on the merits. Doing so should persuade the Biden administration to cancel it and use the funds for more constructive purposes.

William D. Hartung is the director of the Arms and Security Program at the Center for International Policy and the author of Inside the ICBM Lobby: Special Interests or the National Interest?