Nuclear Weapon Skeptics Face Turbulent Path to Rein In the Pentagon

As the Pentagon undertakes the most ambitious development of nuclear weapons in decades, skeptics in the House of Representatives haven’t yet found a unified strategy to achieve cutbacks.

A static display of intercontinental ballistic missiles at the F.E. Warren Air Force Base, Wyo., front gate the evening of April 4, 2012. From left are the Peacekeeper, the Minuteman III and the Minuteman I. The planet Venus is visible in the sky above the Minuteman missiles and Jupiter is visible to the left of the Minuteman I. (U.S. Air Force photo by R.J. Oriez)
A static display of intercontinental ballistic missiles — the Peacekeeper, the Minuteman III, and the Minuteman I, from left to right — are seen at the F.E. Warren Air Force Base, Wyo., on April 4, 2012. Photo: R.J. Oriez/U.S. Air Force

The Pentagon is hell-bent on securing funds to develop a brand new suite of nuclear weapons to replace its Cold War-era arsenal, with the federal government projecting expenditures of $190 billion through 2030 to modernize powerful missiles, warheads, bombers, and submarines originally conceived at the height of a nuclear arms race with the Soviet Union. The few Democrats who stand opposed to the nuclear spending frenzy have so far struggled to drum up support with their colleagues on Capitol Hill.

“The support of the nuclear triad is embedded in the minds of Congress,” warned Rep. John Garamendi, a moderate Democrat from California who chairs the House Armed Services subcommittee on readiness. “Very, very few are willing to question, let alone vote to reduce, or to address, or to modify, or to even say, ‘Do we really need a nuclear triad?’ There are very few of us that would be willing to take up that argument. However, I believe we must.”

Resistance to the Pentagon’s current plans has been loudest in the House of Representatives, thanks to legislators like Garamendi and Reps. Adam Smith, D-Wash.; Mark Pocan, D-Wis.; Ro Khanna, D-Calif.; and Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash.

Of the myriad nuclear modernization programs underway, they have been most outspoken about the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent, or GBSD, intercontinental ballistic missile system and the Long-Range Standoff, or LRSO, nuclear-armed cruise missile. Garamendi and his colleagues have raised concerns about inflated prices for these weapons since the government is awarding contracts for both on a sole-sourced basis.

The Defense Department has already awarded Northrop Grumman the contract to build 600 new GBSD ICBMs to replace its 450 1960s-era Minuteman III missiles, which make up one-third of the military’s nuclear triad. (Under the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with Russia, only 400 ICBMs can be on alert at a given time. President Joe Biden has extended the agreement until 2026, when it will have to be extended again to apply to GBSD.) With costs estimated at more than $80 billion through 2030 and $260 billion over a 50-year life cycle, GBSD is one of the most expensive weapons in U.S. military history. The LRSO program, meanwhile, is replacing the 1980s-era air-launched cruise missile; Raytheon is expected to receive that contract any day. The Congressional Budget Office estimated that canceling LRSO could save the government about $11 billion over the next 10 years.

The nuclear weapon skeptics face an uphill battle to rein in these plans, as they diverge on whether to prioritize reducing quantities, pausing development of new weapons, or abandoning portions of the military’s nuclear deterrence forces altogether. They also have a shortened time span to rally votes after a delayed budget proposal from the White House expedited this year’s appropriations process, and their task is made only more difficult due to fearmongering about China.

Some Democrats have pitched as an alternative to GBSD the extension of the service life of Minuteman III, but a Pentagon analysis found that doing so, in the long term, could actually be more expensive than building a brand new system. Supporters of GBSD have not been shy to boast about the savings — driving Smith, a Congressional Progressive Caucus, or CPC, member who chairs the powerful House Armed Services Committee, to move in another direction.

“I think that the wiser approach would be to argue about the utility of the third leg of the triad to begin with,” said Smith. “Do we need to build anything? And if we build anything, do we need to replace all of them? Maybe we can get by with less.”

While Smith is more interested in reducing the overall number of GBSD missiles or ditching ICBMs entirely, Garamendi is still focused on using Minuteman III into the future. He introduced the Investing in Commonsense Ballistic Missiles Act Tuesday to pause development of GBSD for 10 years and extend the current ICBMs until at least 2040.

“Nobody other than some military pencil pusher has used those numbers,” Garamendi said about claims that maintaining Minuteman III would cost more than a new system, as the Pentagon had compared the costs over 55 years when the current ICBMs are simply unable to last that long anyway. Instead, he argued, the government could save $37 billion by keeping them around for another 20 years.

Smith did not sign on to Garamendi’s bill and is instead focusing, in the immediate future, on ensuring that the government doesn’t “make any long-term commitments so that we can have time to build support for the idea that we need less of a nuclear arsenal,” he said.

In particular, the committee chair is arguing for the White House to at least delay the LRSO contract, which was expected last month, until after the Defense Department finishes its new Nuclear Posture Review, a recurring process to determine the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. defense policy, in the fall. He said he’s struggled to get a meeting with the new administration to discuss LRSO and GBSD due to the White House’s current focus on the Covid-19 pandemic and economic recovery. The National Security Council and Defense Department did not respond to a request for comment.

Meanwhile, Pocan, a chair emeriti of the CPC and co-founder of the Defense Spending Reduction Caucus, told The Intercept last week that he’s had conversations with administration officials who are open to the idea of not just scaling back nuclear weapons development but also redirecting funds to higher priority “national security” issues like pandemic relief, climate change, and health care — key progressive interests.

This kind of transfer was not included in Garamendi’s bill to pause GBSD but was a key component of a bill that Khanna, a deputy whip in the CPC who sits on the House Armed Services Committee, introduced in March. His Investing in Cures Before Missiles Act would cancel the new ICBM system entirely and redirect $1 billion that the Pentagon already had in its GBSD account to develop a universal vaccine to treat any future coronavirus variants. Garamendi said current regulations prevent the repurposing of certain appropriated funds, making Khanna’s proposal technically infeasible. Still, Khanna ultimately co-sponsored Garamendi’s legislation. Khanna’s office declined to comment for this story.

While Khanna’s bill sought to transfer already appropriated funds, Pocan is exploring the possibility of diverting some of the $715 billion the White House is requesting for its fiscal year 2022 defense budget. He said he submitted a Defense Department appropriations request to zero out the GBSD program. “Each warhead is about 20 times more powerful than the atomic bomb that we dropped on Hiroshima,” he said. “Again, something that I don’t think you can really argue is necessary.” Pocan further noted that the 1.7 percent increase from the fiscal year 2021 defense budget, which invoked the ire of conservatives who want 3-5 percent annual growth, is greater than the entire funding request for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The LRSO program’s fiscal year 2022 budget is likely to be of particular interest to lawmakers seeking to move funds, especially since the Biden administration’s proposal requests $200 million more than what the previous White House projected. Jayapal, chair of the CPC, introduced an amendment last June to the House’s fiscal year 2021 appropriations bill that sought to defund LRSO. The proposal died in a 138-289 vote.

“I don’t understand why the administration did what it did,” Jayapal said during a CPC press briefing earlier this month, in reference to the many nuclear weapons programs, including LRSO, that saw higher numbers in the new budget request. “I think it’s unwise, and I plan to do everything I can to reverse that,” she added, noting that she’s spearheading a comprehensive letter to the White House focused on the military’s nuclear force posture and investments.

But any funding and program cuts are unlikely to succeed this year, Pocan conceded, since Biden released his proposal at the end of May rather than the more typical early March. The delay leaves Congress just four months to pass the annual defense policy and spending bills, amid summer recesses, before needing to pass a continuing resolution that would keep funds at current levels.

“The Trump folks trying to hang on to power by any means necessary certainly undermined our ability to get the budget process going,” Smith said. (The previous administration reportedly blocked Biden’s transition team from receiving customary Defense Department briefings.)


Not Even Covid-19 Could Slow Down Nuclear Spending

Smith and Pocan agreed that the time crunch makes any successes in the fight over nuclear weapons modernization more likely next year in the fiscal year 2023 budget cycle. With the strong possibility of Democrats losing the House in the 2022 midterm elections, there will be plenty of pressure on the lawmakers to achieve their goals next year. That will require a fierce campaign, especially since, as Smith noted, there are Democrats who support the Trump-era Nuclear Posture Review that sanctioned GBSD and LRSO and warned about China’s military expansion. (President Barack Obama’s 2010 Nuclear Posture Review opened the door to these new weapons while raising concerns about China too.)

The group publicly questioning the status quo of nuclear weapons development remains small, but Pocan is optimistic that they can attract more after 93 lawmakers voted in favor of his amendment to the annual defense authorization last year to reduce the military’s budget by 10 percent. He also noted that activism may have been muted in recent years due to a 10-year sequester on the federal budget that mandated equal reductions in spending levels and that has finally ended.

“It was a system that kind of, in some ways, protected democratic priorities, but in other ways, it made the defense budget continue to get bloated, but this is our first year that those aren’t connected, and that’s why I think groups are getting more active now,” Pocan said.

Still, he acknowledged that heightened fears about China may stifle efforts to convince lawmakers to reject or modify the current nuclear modernization plans. The anti-China rhetoric has been particularly high among Republicans, who might otherwise be “a natural ally,” as Pocan noted, and support ideas like Garamendi’s bill, which reduces federal spending but doesn’t transfer funds to other government agencies — the point at which progressives and fiscal conservatives traditionally diverge. No Republicans co-sponsored the new legislation.

“To be successful in this broader approach, we have to keep the China fearmongering under control because it is, as you know, spreading,” Smith warned. “We have to be realistic about what we face there and not make them 10 feet tall.”

Update: July 1, 2021, 12:15 p.m. ET
This story has been updated to clarify the specifics of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty.

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