ICBM Feud Flares Up Over Tiny Review of 50-Year-Old U.S. Missile

The tiff reflects a divide over the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. defense policy and in defense budgeting.

ICBM Feud Flares Up Over Tiny Review of 50-Year-Old U.S. Missile
The Pentagon building in Arlington, Virginia, U.S. [Photographer: Stefani Reynolds/Bloomberg]

A tiny Pentagon contract for an influential Washington think tank to study the nation’s nuclear arsenal is sparking outsized congressional scrutiny, in a prelude to a bigger fight over whether to spend billions of dollars buying new intercontinental ballistic missiles.

The $75,000 contract awarded in December to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace will result in a five- to seven-page unclassified paper later this month examining “the relative risks and benefits of various options regarding the land-based leg of the U.S. nuclear triad.”

Citing previous studies and bipartisan congressional support for new ICBMs, the top Republicans on the House and Senate Armed Services committees -- Representative Mike Rogers of Alabama and Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma-- backed language in the $768.2 billion defense policy bill that President Joe Biden signed last month demanding documents on any contract studying whether to extend the service of aging Minuteman III missiles first deployed in 1970 or on “the future of the intercontinental ballistic missile force.”

“There’s no way yet another review can possibly provide any insights that would outweigh a decade’s worth of previous analyses,” Inhofe said in a statement. “It’s puzzling why the administration has insisted on pursuing yet another review of the same thing.” Both lawmakers called it a waste of money.

The tiff reflects a divide over the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. defense policy -- and in defense budgeting -- and it foreshadows a major political battle this year after the Pentagon releases a new Nuclear Posture Review.

ICBM Feud Flares Up Over Tiny Review of 50-Year-Old U.S. Missile

Northrop System

At the heart of the dispute is America’s continuing reliance on Minuteman III ICBMs, and the billions of dollars required to develop Northrop Grumman Corp.’s new Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent program that’s intended to replace the decades-old weaponry. 

Major procurement funding hasn’t been committed yet to the $246 billion program, which includes lifetime operations and support and as much as $110.6 billion in acquisition for an estimated 659 missiles and the new W-87-1 warhead.  

Democrat Adam Smith of Washington, chairman of the House Armed Service Services Committee, praised the Defense Department “for seeking a wide range of views on U.S. nuclear posture” as it nears completion of the Nuclear Posture Review, committee spokesperson Caleb Randall-Bodman said in a statement. The review “will guide tens of billions of dollars in spending on nuclear modernization.”

In July, 20 Democratic lawmakers, including Elizabeth Warren, a member of the Senate Armed Services panel, wrote Biden reiterating “our call for an independent, outside organization” to “complete a thorough review of the technical feasibility of extending the life of the current Minuteman III ICBM missile before proceeding with a multiple-generation commitment to the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent.”

Warren’s Concern

A person familiar with Warren’s thinking said the Carnegie study -- which calls for virtual roundtable discussions with “experts of diverse perspectives” -- isn’t a replacement for an independent technical assessment, which the senator from Massachusetts believes is still needed.

The Carnegie Endowment describes itself as a network of experts “from diverse disciplines and perspectives spread across more than 20 countries and six global centers working together as one network to advance international peace.” Its board is headed by Penny Pritzker, a Democratic billionaire who was commerce secretary under President Barack Obama. Its former chairman is William Burns, who’s now Biden’s CIA director. 

Carnegie’s proposal for the project promised to seek diverse viewpoints, from former Trump administration officials to arms control advocacy groups.

James Acton, a Carnegie nuclear weapons and policy expert who’s working on the assessment, said it “will reflect a wide variety of opinions from a bipartisan group of experts” and “will identify the benefits, risks and unanswered questions associated with a number of alternatives.”

“There’s a broader range of alternatives to consider” than have been examined so far in the debate over Minuteman III missiles versus the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent, and “there’s value to flagging them and identifying critical questions,” he said. 

Still, citing previous studies and congressional support for the new ICBMs, Rogers spokesperson Justine Sanders said in a statement that “the secretary of defense should cancel the contract.” The current plan to replace the Minuteman “was initiated by the Obama administration after a thorough examination and analysis of multiple alternatives,” she said.

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