Democrats take aim at the US’s new $264 billion ICBM amid search for cash to boost the military

icbm minuteman
An unarmed Minuteman III ICBM is launched during a test at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, August 2, 2017.

  • The Biden administration’s 2022 budget has sparked new debate about military funding.
  • The GBSD, a replacement for the US’s current ICBM’s, has attracted particular scrutiny.
  • Pausing the GBSD could save $37 billion “without any deterioration of our nuclear deterrence,” Rep. John Garamendi told Insider.
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Amid debates over how much funding the US military needs to counter China and Russia, Democratic lawmakers have taken aim at a major new nuclear weapon, the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent, to pay for other priorities.

“It’s a matter of how we’re going to spend a very precious resource called money,” Rep. John Garamendi, who chairs the House Armed Services Committee’s readiness subcommittee, told Insider in an interview Thursday.

The GBSD, work on which began during the Obama administration, will replace the Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile, which has been in service since the 1970s.

Cost estimates for the GBSD are close to $100 billion for acquisition and $264 billion over its lifetime, which is set to run to the mid-2070s. Northrop Grumman received a $13.3 billion contract for the weapon in September.

The GBSD is set for its first flight in 2023 and to hit initial operational capability in 2029, with all 400 of the new missiles deployed by 2036.

F.E. Warren Air Force Base ICBM missile silo Wyoming
A US airman gives a tour of ICBM training facilities on F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming, July 22, 2012.

GBSD proponents say the Minuteman’s service life can’t be extended, but Garamendi has said Air Force officials “confirmed” it could and has argued for a GBSD pause until the mid-2030s.

“That is exactly what the Air Force is going to do with most of the Minuteman IIIs that are presently in the silos. They will be life-extended for the next 15 to 20 years as the GBSD is replacing the Minuteman III,” said Garamendi, who also sits on the subcommittee that oversees nuclear weapons.

With that pause, over the next 10 years “some $37 billion could be saved and used for other purposes without any deterioration of our nuclear deterrence,” Garamendi added, citing estimates from a 2017 Congressional Budget Office report.

That money could be spent on other priorities, such as more warships, new weapons like hypersonic missiles, as well as artificial-intelligence and cyber capabilities, Garamendi said.

Gen. Timothy Ray, head of Air Force Global Strike Command, and other officials have said developing the GBSD would save $38 billion compared to extending the Minuteman III through 2075.

Garamendi called that a “fallacious argument,” citing estimates that showed life-extensions were cheaper over shorter periods, such as the CBO’s 15-year estimate, which are “the time horizon in which all of us are living.”

“To draw a conclusion based upon the cost 55 years from now is a stretch,” Garamendi said.

‘The hawks want it all’

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A missile silo at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, July 17, 2007.

Progressive activists and lawmakers have also called to pause or halt the GBSD.

Sen. Ed Markey and Rep. Ro Khanna introduced a bill in March to redirect GBSD funding to COVID-19 vaccine research. (A similar measure from Khanna was voted down by the House Armed Services Committee in 2020.)

Former defense officials, including former Defense Secretary William Perry, have argued ICBMs are unnecessary for deterrence and also raise the risks of a nuclear war.

Current military leaders and Democratic and Republican lawmakers say it’s necessary to maintain all three legs of the nuclear triad: ICBMs, submarine-launched ballistic missiles, and air-launched weapons.

Asked by Garamendi at a hearing this month about pausing the GBSD to save $37 billion, Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said he “would not recommend taking that money away and putting it elsewhere.”

“The recapitalization of the entire triad, to include the GBSD, is critical to our nation’s security,” Milley said, adding that with a delay of 12 to 15 years, “you’ll have a gap in the land-based leg.”

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A Minuteman III missile launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base on July 28, 1971.

At a press conference Thursday, Republican Sen. Jodi Ernst said the US “cannot trade” a GBSD pause for additional funds.

“For too long and many administrations, we were not as focused as we should have been on those modernization efforts, and it has set us much further behind than we should be,” Ernst said. “If we delay for a dozen years, it would be extremely hard to catch back up. If we look at Russia, China, Iran’s activities and what they want to do with enrichment, we can’t afford that.”

Garamendi countered that a Minuteman extension was already part the GBSD plan, that the older missile will remain a deterrent, and that work done on the GBSD “would be available to carry forward.”

“The delivery systems are not standing still. They’re rapidly changing, and it may very well be that 10 years from now, 15 years from now, the ICBM in silo is not the deterrent that we would count on” Garamendi said.

The Biden administration’s 2022 Defense Department budget invests $2.6 billion in the GBSD, up from $1.5 billion in the Trump administration’s 2021 budget.

Progressives have criticized Biden’s $715 billion request for the Pentagon in 2022, a slight increase over 2021, as too big. (Moderate Democrats called it “strong and sensible.”) Republicans have criticized it for not meeting the 3% to 5% annual increase that military leaders and others have recommended.

“They are increasing spending everywhere on everything, with one exception,” Sen. Dan Sullivan said of Biden’s overall budget at the press conference Thursday. “That’s the big message we’re sending. The prioritization of our military with this budget is last.”

Minuteman III ICBM warhead nose cone
Airmen mount a refurbished nuclear warhead on a Minuteman III in a silo in Scottsbluff, Nebraska, April 15, 1997.

“There’s no doubt that the hawks want it all,” Garamendi said, adding that Biden’s budget “chose to keep the GDSB in place, but they also made very, very hard choices, which are going to be very difficult for the [House Armed Services] committee to accept.”

While work on the GBSD has begun, its future may depend on the Biden administration’s ongoing nuclear posture review.

Garamendi noted that Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin declined to commit to the GBSD when asked about it at the hearing with Milley, saying that the “right balance” of forces would be informed by the ongoing nuclear posture review.

“He said that twice,” Garamendi said. “I’m sure he was honest, and I want to believe that he was honest that, in fact, the issue of the GBSD is under consideration – that is, a pause on the GBSD – so we’ll see.”

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US Air Force aborts the planned test launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile for unexplained reasons

icbm minuteman
An unarmed Minuteman III ICBM during a test at Vandenberg Air Force Base, August 2, 2017.

  • The US Air Force had to abort a planned test launch of one of its Minuteman III ICBMs.
  • The service said a “ground abort” was experienced prior to launch but didn’t go into specifics.
  • The abort comes amid a debate about the nuclear modernization and the future of the ICBM force.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

The US Air Force aborted the planned test launch of a Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile, Air Force Global Strike Command said in a statement Wednesday.

The launch was scheduled for sometime between 12:15 a.m. and 6:15 a.m. Pacific Time on Wednesday morning at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, but it “experienced a ground abort prior to launch,” the Air Force said.

The service did not go into detail on the specifics, only noting in its brief statement that “the cause of the ground abort is currently under investigation” and that Global Strike Command is “assessing the potential to reschedule the launch.”

The US military’s roughly 400 silo-based LGM-30G Minuteman III ICBMs are the land-based leg of the US nuclear triad, which also includes nuclear-capable bombers and nuclear-armed ballistic missile submarines.

The Air Force conducts regular test launches to ensure that weapons, respective launch systems, and related personnel remain reliable should the US find itself in a nuclear crisis.

Problems during the testing are rare, but they do happen. In 2018, for example, the US military was forced to terminate an unarmed ICBM in flight after an anomaly created an “unsafe flight condition.”

The latest issue, whatever it may be, comes amid a debate over efforts to modernize America’s ICBM force, an expensive endeavor that has received some pushback from progressive politicians and arms control advocates.

The US military, in partnership with major defense contractor Northrop Grumman, aims to replace the existing intercontinental ballistic missiles with new ICBMs under the Ground-Based Strategic Defense (GBSD) program, which could have a total cost of several hundred billion dollars.

Minuteman ICBMs have been in service since the early 1960s, and US military leaders argue that without modernization, the US runs the risk of its missiles eventually not working at all.

Adm. Charles Richard, who currently leads US Strategic Command, told lawmakers in April that he “cannot deter with the leftovers of the Cold War forever,” arguing that the ICBM force is past the point of upgrade and needs to be replaced.

Given the lack of clarity surrounding the unexpected abort of Wednesday’s test launch, it is unclear what impact, if any, this could have on the ongoing debate surrounding nuclear modernization efforts and the future of the ICBM force.

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Top nuclear commander says he will push to put bombers back on alert if US gets rid of its ICBMs

B-52H Stratofortresses from the 2nd Bomb Wing line up on the runway as part of a readiness exercise at Barksdale Air Force Base, La.
B-52H bombers on the runway during a readiness exercise at Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana.

  • The head of STRATCOM said he would put bombers on alert if the ICBM leg of the triad goes away.
  • His comments come as some in Congress question the need for nuclear modernization spending.
  • The STRATCOM commander says he needs a modern ICBM force, not “leftovers of the Cold War.”
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

America’s top nuclear commander told lawmakers Tuesday that he would push to put US nuclear-capable bombers on alert if the military lost its intercontinental ballistic missiles.

As some lawmakers question the need to invest in nuclear modernization programs like the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent, a replacement for the aging Minuteman III ICBM force, the head of US Strategic Command is arguing in favor of moving forward with the modernization plans and against cutting the ICBM force.

STRATCOM commander Adm. Charles Richard has argued previously that a failure to modernize and replace what the US has now is essentially disarmament in the face of a growing threat. Russia has its own nuclear triad, and China is developing a functional triad.

Speaking before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday, Richard said that if the ICBM leg of the US nuclear triad were to be abandoned, then the bomber force would have to take its place as an always-ready nuclear deterrent.

“What is not often recognized is that we don’t have a triad day-to-day,” Richard said. “The bombers are not available to us. We chose to take them off alert as a type of peace dividend after the Cold War. Day-to-day, what you have is basically a dyad.”

The three legs of the US nuclear triad are the silo-based ICBMs, ballistic-missile submarines, and bombers, all of which are overseen by STRATCOM. All are options, but only the submarines and the ICBMs are ready to go at a moment’s notice.

Richard argued that the “basic design criteria in the triad is that you cannot allow a failure of any one leg of the triad to prevent you from being able to do everything the president has ordered you to do.”

“If you don’t have intercontinental ballistic missiles, we can’t meet that criteria,” the admiral said, adding, “You are completely dependent on the submarine leg, and I’ve already told the secretary of defense that under those conditions I would request to re-alert the bombers.”

Richard stressed Tuesday that without funding for programs like the GBSD – the research and development of which is expected to cost more than $85 billion, with a total life-cycle cost in the hundreds of billions – the US runs the risk of its ICBMs eventually “not working at all.” He said that he simply “cannot deter with the leftovers of the Cold War forever.”

Putting the strategic bomber force back on alert, meaning loaded and ready for an immediate nuclear strike should the order come, would be a return to practices that were common decades ago during the Cold War.

The idea of putting bombers back on alert has come up before, though not in the context of a potential loss of a leg of the nuclear triad.

In 2017, Defense One reported that the Air Force was preparing to put the nuclear bombers back on 24-hour alert. That change, however, was never actually made.

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