Home Nonmilitary action A Millennial’s Perspective: ICBMs Are Ridiculous

A Millennial’s Perspective: ICBMs Are Ridiculous


An unarmed Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile launched during a test at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California on February 5, 2020. Credit: U.S. Air Force Photo by Senior Airman Clayton Wear

The international community increasingly prioritizes the voices of young experts in nuclear non-proliferation and related issues. This generation, my generation, faces both the pressure to pursue higher education in order to be successful and, at least in the United States, the burden of taking on gargantuan student debt. As someone who has invested over $ 100,000 to educate me on such important topics as nuclear non-proliferation, US-Russian arms control, and international diplomacy, I find it utterly incomprehensible why the United States is investing so much. money in military spending ($ 778 billion in 2020) – and most notably in the obscene budget for the nuclear modernization project, which will cost taxpayers between $ 1.2 trillion and $ 1.7 trillion over 30 years.

These numbers lead me, and I suspect many other young American nuclear policy experts, to wonder why my government is spending so much money to modernize part of the American nuclear triad, namely Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs), which is not only shockingly expensive but also inherently destabilizing and unnecessary for deterrence.

Former US Secretary of Defense William Perry and Plowshares Fund Policy Director Tom Z. Collina said so in their 2020 book, The button. Arms Control Association executive director Daryl Kimball said in a 2021 edition of Arms control today. Others have said it and have been saying it for years.

ICBMs are ridiculous.

Let me explain. None of these experts wrote these down verbatim, but they gave a chilling and depressing explanation of why ICBMs should be phased out. There are three main reasons for this: the particular danger of ICBMs, their redundancy in nuclear deterrence, and their ridiculous cost.

They are the most dangerous branch of the nuclear triad. They are the quintessential weapon to use or lose in a crisis. As Perry and Collina point out, Russia knows exactly where all of the US ICBMs are and could (but certainly wouldn’t) attack them at any time in a first strike scenario. In response to a warning of an imminent attack, true or false, the United States could either launch its ICBMs so that they would not be destroyed if the attack is real, or wait to ensure that the attack is real, thus ensuring that a majority of Americans The ICBMs would be destroyed. There is no reason to continue with a US nuclear strategy that creates so much risk, especially given the plethora of false alerts of impending attacks, which are common knowledge. Simply put, ICBMs are too dangerous.

Supporters of the ICBMs say we need to keep them as a “sponge” that, in a first strike and all-out war scenario, would force an attacker to spend a large chunk of his nuclear forces to take out US ICBMs. But the United States can respond to a nuclear attack with or without an ICBM. As Kimball and others point out, a single US nuclear submarine, which carries around 160 thermonuclear warheads with much higher yields than the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, would be enough to devastate an entire country during a second strike. Nuclear submarines are by design almost impossible for other countries to follow. While the goal is to maintain a second strike capability to provide credible deterrence, ICBMs are redundant.

If one accepts the previous two arguments – that ICBMs are unnecessarily dangerous and, in fact, redundant – it becomes even more difficult to understand why the United States is spending so much money on them. The 2021 budget for Strategic Ground Deterrence, the planned replacement for today’s ICBMs, is $ 1.5 billion. It’s for one year only. The Biden administration’s request for this program in 2022 is $ 2.6 billion.

The nuclear policy discourse (correctly) includes the growing contribution of next-generation or emerging experts – pick your nickname. Here are some reasons, from a young expert’s perspective, why President Biden should, at the very least, freeze the budget for strategic ground deterrence, as Kimball suggests for a first step, noting that even the simple freezing this budget at 2021 levels would save $ 1 billion. Or better yet, eliminate ICBMs altogether, as Perry and Collina suggest. Either of these steps could result in significant savings.

Due to the way the federal budget is constructed, with separate categories for defense and non-defense spending, any immediate savings resulting from an ICBM budget freeze would be redirected to other projects within the Department of Defense and could not be used for non-military projects. . Still, it is a useful reflective experience to consider how future budget requests might phase out ICBMs while increasing funding for other projects by an equivalent amount. Financial constraints related to student debt, health care costs, climate change mitigation, and even budget issues related to nuclear governance demonstrate that there are many better uses for this money.

Student debt. This is the reason for my rant. Borrowers in the United States already owe nearly $ 1.6 trillion on educational loans. It is incomprehensible to me and to many other young experts why a country that spends more than any other country on defense cannot make education affordable for its youth. The federal government, which owns over 90% of US student debt, estimates that about a third of that debt will never be repaid. What a difference it would make in the lives of so many young experts, both in the nuclear field and elsewhere, if the money saved on missiles and missile upgrades could be used to empower the younger generation of American leaders, rather than weigh it down.

Health care. A similar argument applies to health care. The United States is the only industrialized country that does not offer universal health insurance. During the COVID-19 pandemic, this fact became much more salient as hospitals were overwhelmed and the entire healthcare system was under immense pressure. It was a revelation to me, when I moved to Austria, that a trip to the ER there wouldn’t drown me in bills I couldn’t pay. The first time I went to get medicine and didn’t receive a bill, the pharmacist looked at me and said, “Yes, no bill, in this country we believe that healthcare. health is a human right. Imagine how far the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent program money could go to ease the strain on America’s health care system.

Climate change. It’s not just Greta Thunberg who is unhappy with the global response to climate change, it’s at least 86% of young Americans, and most of us understand that human activities are to blame. To mitigate the effects of climate change, more money needs to be invested in carbon-friendly energy. It doesn’t have to be nuclear power (although Russian colleagues and I argued in 2020 that nuclear is among the safest sources of energy). Funds released by the ICBM modernization program could be used for research and development of advanced reactor designs; and the construction of more wind turbines, solar panels and hydropower plants.

Nuclear guarantees. The international community relies on the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to ensure that nuclear technology remains for peaceful purposes. The IAEA applied nuclear safeguards in 183 countries in 2020, amounting to € 148.7 million (approximately $ 177 million). This budget includes verification activities under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the Iran nuclear deal. The number of facilities and other locations to be subject to safeguards is increasing, as the IAEA continues to operate on a zero real growth budget (increasing just enough to account for inflation). The United States is already the IAEA’s main funder, but the money spent on ICBMs and their modernization would be better spent to support the IAEA, including Member State support programs that strengthen the activities of guarantees.

These are just a few things the US government could prioritize for ICBMs. Other options include funding verification research, through initiatives like the International Partnership for the Verification of Nuclear Disarmament, so that when further reductions in nuclear weapons become possible, we have the technology to back them up. . The United States could also contribute more to the implementation of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, including funding the progress lost due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Young experts in this field are not naive. We are fully aware that, as long as they exist, nuclear weapons will continue to require maintenance costs to ensure safety and reliability, whether they are in silos, on submarines or in the air. However, it does not make sense, financial or otherwise, to invest huge sums of money in modernizing the ICBM branch of the nuclear triad when it is not necessary for national security.

President Biden has an opportunity here. The arms control hole left by the United States’ withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty needs to be closed. The slow rot of the Open Skies treatise makes this hole even deeper. Why not fulfill it by unilaterally eliminating an entire class of nuclear weapons? The withdrawal of ICBMs from the US nuclear fleet, even with a commitment to do so, would constitute an indispensable confidence-building measure in US-Russian relations.

My generation is tired of seeing billions headed for dangerous and destabilizing weapons rather than investments in our future. It is time for the ICBMs to disappear.