Inside the ICBM Lobby: Special Interests Or the National Interest?
William D. Hartung / Arms Control Today
(May 2021 Issue) — Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) have been called “some of the most dangerous weapons in the world” by former Defense Secretary William Perry, because under current policies the president would have only a matter of minutes to decide whether to launch them in a crisis, increasing the risks of an accidental nuclear war. (1)
Despite this reality, proposals for reducing this risk have routinely been blocked, in significant part due to a group of Senators from states that host ICBM bases or ICBM maintenance and development activities, often referred to as the ICBM Coalition. The Coalition includes Senators from Montana, North Dakota, Utah, and Wyoming. (2)
The polices promoted by the ICBM Coalition and its allies do not have wide public support. A recent poll conducted by ReThink Media and the Federation of American Scientists found that 60% of Americans supported either forgoing the development of a new ICBM, eliminating ICBMs altogether, or eliminating all nuclear weapons, an indication that a change in current ICBM policies would have significant public support. (3)
In addition, nearly two-thirds of respondents (64%) expressed a preference for delaying the new ICBM – known formally as the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD) — while continuing to extend the life of existing land-based missiles while the GBSD program undergoes a comprehensive review. (4)
The efforts of the ICBM Coalition have been supplemented by lobbying and campaign contributions from ICBM contractors, led by Northrop Grumman, which has received a sole source, $13.3 billion contract to build a new ICBM, known formally as the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent, or GBSD. (5) Current estimates indicate that building and operating the GBSD and related warheads will cost $264 billion over the life of the program, which would
1. William J. Perry, “Why It’s Safe to Scrap America’s ICBMs,” New York Times, September 30, 2016.
2. Much of the material in this issue brief is based on William D. Hartung, “Inside the ICBM Lobby: Special Interests or the National Interest,” Center for International Policy report, February 2021
3. Aaron Mehta, “Majority of Voters Support ICBM Replacement Alternatives, New Poll Finds,” Defense News, February 5, 2021.
5. William Hartung, “Corrupt Bargain: One Company’s Monopoly Over Land-Based Nuclear Missiles,” Center for International Policy, September 2020.
Majority of Voters Support ICBM Alternatives, New Poll Finds
WASHINGTON (February 5, 2021) — A new poll has found a majority of Americans support alternatives to the Pentagon’s planned program to replace intercontinental ballistic missiles with the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent.
The new research, exclusively shared with Defense News by the Federation of American Scientists and ReThink Media, found the majorities of both Republicans and Democrats polled would be in favor of alternative solutions, including potentially extending the life of the current Minuteman III ICBM arsenal.
In September, Northrop Grumman was awarded the engineering, manufacturing and development contract for the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent, or GBSD, which will eventually include more than 650 missiles and will reportedly cost about $264 billion over the life span of the program. The company was the sole bidder, after Boeing dropped out from the competition in July 2019. GBSD is set to begin replacing the Minuteman III by 2029.
Supporters of the program, including top Pentagon officials, have argued that the Minuteman III program is too old to safely extend its life, and that GBSD is vital to American security interests. But the system has been a target of progressives in Congress, and there is hope among the nonproliferation community that the Biden administration may be willing to either cut the program or entirely eliminate the ground-based leg of the nuclear triad — despite statements of support for the nuclear triad from incoming Defense Department nominees.
The survey talked to 800 registered voters between Oct. 12 and Oct. 20, and included an oversampling of 200 registered voters in the states of Colorado, Montana, North Dakota, Nebraska and Wyoming to gain deeper insight into how residents of states with ICBMs think about the weapons. The margin of error was plus or minus 3.4 percent.
In response to the question “What do you think the government should do about ICBMs? Which of the following comes closest to your personal view, even if none are perfect,” 30 percent supported refurbishing existing ICBMs rather than replacing them, 26 percent polled supported the full ICBM replacement plan, 20 percent supported eliminating ICBMs altogether and 10 percent supported eliminating all nuclear weapons.
Republicans (38 percent) were more supportive of the GBSD program than Democrats (19 percent). But that still means support for alternative policies — 60 percent overall — to the current GBSD program cuts across both parties, representing a plurality of respondents, said Matt Korda, who along with Tricia White led the polling effort for the Federation of American Scientists.
What do you think the government should do about ICBMs?
Results from an FAS/ReThink Media poll. (Federation of American Scientists)
“There’s a reason why a majority of poll respondents supported alternative policies to the GBSD, and it’s the same reason why a growing number of top military and civilian officials are openly questioning the program today: These missiles no longer play a role in addressing the most important security challenges of our time,” Korda said. “Is this truly the best investment in our collective safety that we could be making right now? Our survey results suggest the opposite.”
“Before his election, Joe Biden indicated that he would likely be conducting a full review of US nuclear policy, and it seems that his nuclear policy team might be interested in taking a close look at the status of the GBSD program as well as the future role of ICBMs in US nuclear strategy,” Korda added. “Now that his administration has begun, these polling results suggest that the public would overwhelmingly support this effort.”
In any poll, how a question is asked is important and can skew results. In this case, the question included the statement that the GBSD contract “is being awarded to a single company, which is highly unusual because a lack of competition generally means that program costs increase significantly,” and that “there is no precedent for a sole-source contract of this size,” which could have impacted respondents’ answers.
A second question — on whether to delay the GBSD program for an overall review while continuing to extend the life of the Minuteman III ICBMs — was more definitive, with 64 percent of respondents in favor of the idea and 18 percent opposed.
More broadly, the pollsters asked respondents to rank the issues that would make them feel safer. COVID-19 topped the list; but while issues such as national unity and better health care ranked high, the three military-related options — a larger Defense Department budget, modernized nuclear weapons and an increased conventional arsenal — ranked dead last.
As with all defense projects facing potential changes, the factor of economic impact is a major consideration — particularly in Congress, where members from Colorado, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota and Wyoming all have ICBMs in their backyards as part of the so-called nuclear sponge.
To counter this argument, the poll included a question for residents of those five states, asking whether they would support removing ICBMs if it came with guaranteed job and income for anybody whose job is displaced as a result. Forty-eight percent of respondents in those states strongly or somewhat supported the drawdown in that case.
But is such an economic replacement possible? The authors noted that such economic trade-offs feature in efforts such as the New Green Deal and fit into the “Build Back Better” motto of the Biden administration, and so they think the idea could gain traction.
“For the $260 billion life-cycle cost of the GBSD program, the United States could be creating over 3 million additional jobs if that money were directed towards other industries,” White said. “This polling indicates that Americans care more about job security than they do about defense security, and rightfully so. If we want to continue reducing disproportionate defense spending, the Biden administration has the evidence and the policy platform to make that a reality while simultaneously protecting job stability for the American public.”
Aaron Mehta is deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.
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