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$264B for ICBMs That Would Be Destroyed in the Ground? No, Thanks

Creating a spiffy new “nuclear sponge” makes neither fiscal nor strategic sense.

The Biden administration is spending trillions of dollars to address the most pressing challenges we face, such as the pandemic, aging infrastructure and climate change. And the more the administration spends, the more the public has a right to ask where this money will come from.

So far, President Biden is planning to pay for new spending by increasing the national debt and new taxes on corporations. We humbly suggest that the administration consider an additional approach: cancelling new nuclear weapons that we do not need.

The Pentagon is planning to spend $264 billion on a new fleet of 600 land-based nuclear missiles, known as ICBMs. This is just part of a trillion-dollar program to rebuild the entire U.S. nuclear arsenal, including new submarines, bombers, and warheads.

But the ICBMs are the toughest sell. Unlike the subs and bombers, we don’t need land-based missiles to deter a nuclear attack. Quite the opposite: they make a nuclear war more likely due to a mistake by an unstable president, miscalculation or false alarm. They make us less safe.

Gen. John Hyten, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, defends the ICBMs by saying that to target them all “an adversary has to commit hundreds, if not thousands, of nuclear weapons in order to try to take that leg out.” He calls the decision to launch a nuclear attack against the United States “almost an impossible decision to make” for any adversary. 

A nuclear attack against the United States would indeed be suicidal, but this would be true even if we had no land-based missiles. The U.S. has hundreds of nuclear warheads deployed on submarines at sea, and any one of those subs could destroy the 50 largest Russian cities. Regardless of our ICBMs, Russia would still be unable to locate and destroy subs at sea, and thus could not escape retaliation. That is the essence of deterrence.

General Hyten also argues that without ICBMs, “You’re down to a number of platforms you could take out with 20 strategic weapons…because of the way we have the alert posture on the bomber force, the way we have our submarines deployed.”

What the general seems to be saying is that Russia would only need to target the two U.S. submarine bases and two nuclear-armed bomber bases to destroy the entire U.S. nuclear arsenal. But this is simply wrong. The U.S. has 14 nuclear-armed subs, most of which are at sea at all times. Yes, Moscow could attack the bases, but that still leaves hundreds of nuclear warheads on multiple subs available for a U.S. retaliation that would decimate Russia. Moreover, with enough warning time, dozens of U.S. bombers could get airborne before an attack arrives.

At the same time, this misguided logic shows what ICBMs really are for: to act as a target and wait to be destroyed in the ground. General Hyten does not talk about launching ICBMs, not even in a nuclear war. Think of them as a giant nuclear sponge to “absorb” a Russian attack.

There is a good reason to never launch ICBMs. They are based in fixed silos in Colorado, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota and Wyoming, and Russia knows exactly where they are. Should Russia begin a nuclear attack, U.S. ICBMs could only be launched before the Russian missiles arrive, because most would be destroyed otherwise. But if the attack is a false alarm, a U.S. ICBM launch would actually start a nuclear war, and the missiles cannot be recalled. We would have ended civilization as we know it.

False alarms have happened multiple times, and in an era of cyberattacks on U.S. command-and-control systems, the danger has only grown. Starting a nuclear war by mistake is the greatest existential risk to the United States today.

So how much are we willing to pay for missiles that we don’t need, should never be launched and, in the highly unlikely event of an attack, would be destroyed in the ground? $264 billion? Surely not.

Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., and Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., have introduced legislation to cancel the new ICBM, known as the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent, and spend the money instead on fighting the pandemic. The bill would also require an independent study on refurbishing the current ICBM, the Minuteman, which could be done at a fraction of the cost.

The Biden administration and Congress should see nuclear land-based missiles for what they really are: a colossal waste of taxpayer money and a catastrophe waiting to happen. But if the political momentum for keeping ICBMs can’t be stopped, then the existing fleet of missiles can be destroyed in the ground for much less cost than buying a new fleet. There is no need to pour hundreds of billions of dollars down the ICBM money pit.