• Sycamore Institute AU

Jumping the Gun: Modernizing the Missile Before the Strategy

Photo from Military & Aerospace Electronics

By Madison Ianniello


Committing to Northrop Grumman’s “Ground Based Strategic Deterrent” missile technology prioritizes technological parity over long term nuclear strategy. In June, Col. Jason Bartolomei, the US Air Force manager for the project, announced that the new missile system will be primed for testing by 2023 and fully operational by 2036. However, its $264 billion lifetime cost will lock the United States into another half century of land-focused nuclear defense— hindering diplomatic and strategic agility. The US should avoid jumping the gun and extend the current missile system, the Minuteman III, one last time.

The Minuteman III has far outlived its original life-cycle, but, historically, that hasn’t been a problem. The Department of Defense has extended its life cycle several times and a Congressional Budget Office report even suggests that one more extension could save US taxpayers upwards of $38 billion. While the DOD claims the opposite to be true, its numbers are based on a 50 year extension unlike the mere decade proposed in the CBO’s report.

Besides fiscal reasons, policy makers need more time to discuss the modernization of US nuclear posture. A popular alternative to the major GBSD investment would be pivoting the triad towards Submarine-launched ballistic missiles which are less vulnerable to foreign attack. This decreased vulnerability gives senior leadership more time to verify incoming strikes before launching their own--ultimately, decreasing the likelihood of accidental escalation.

So what's the rush? Why is there so much pressure to lock in this new tech before comprehensive nuclear policy has been settled? One answer is the droves of lobbyists flocking to Congress and the Pentagon. Another, less malicious, perspective is that the US’s historic claim of deterrence-driven nuclear posture is eroding into a second parity-driven arms race.

As nuclear silos are discovered in China, the latter seems increasingly more likely and, undoubtedly, lobbyists from Northrop Grumman will have a field day with this new fear-mongering tagline. Nuclear defense, and subsequent spending, has surpassed minimum deterrence levels. Lobbyists and policy makers alike demand parity- they want one more and one better than what their adversaries have.

Not only does this unwritten policy direct funds away from more pressing needs, re-committing to such a large nuclear reinvestment sets a poor tone for diplomatic discussions. The US can’t expect other states to trust that nuclear arms-reduction is on the table while simultaneously committing to decades of bolstering its own stockpile. If the US’s overall strategy remains to deter nuclear war, then slamming the door shut on diplomatic channels for arms reduction undercuts long term strategy.

The US’s nuclear strategy needs time to mature and with potential arms-reduction treaties on the horizon, this is not the time to fiscally commit to tech that might not fit future needs. Extending the Minuteman III opens the door for necessary discussions. Could SLBMs become the cornerstone of the US nuclear triad? Could global nuclear stocks be reduced by treaties? Will parity or minimum deterrence drive US nuclear strategy? These questions should be answered naturally through policy discussions, not artificially and hastily decided by lobbyists lining their pockets.