How an announcement in Utah signaled that the new nuclear arms race is on
Northrop Grumman and Republican members of Utah’s congressional delegation said the United States is all-in on a nuclear arms race involving new weapons and technology. But not everyone believes it’s the right course.
SALT LAKE CITY — The event had the trappings of a commercial ground breaking. Officials in suits turning the dirt with shiny shovels. The speeches under the white tent about jobs. In this case, 2,500 new ones.
But the more ominous message sent by defense contractor Northrop Grumman and Republican members of Utah’s congressional delegation was that the United States is all-in on what analysts say is a new nuclear arms race involving new weapons, technologies and more countries to monitor.
“The groundbreaking of this Northrop Grumman facility marks the start of a brand-new chapter in Utah’s support of the nuclear triad,” Rep. Rob Bishop, who sits on the House Armed Services Committee, told the gathering. “As threatening technologies advance in nations around the world, particularly amongst our would-be adversaries, it is crucial that these programs advance here at home.”
The program on stage this week near Hill Air Force Base, about 30 miles north of Salt Lake City, is the proposed Ground Base Strategic Deterrent, which would replace the country’s aging arsenal of Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles, or ICBMs. Northrop Grumman has been involved in developing the next generation of ICBMs since 2017 and hopes to land another contract next year on the next phase of the more than $85 billion project.
Breaking ground on a new facility that would be headquarters for its work on the Ground Base Strategic Deterrent was a bold statement by Northrop Grumman and its plans to be a key player in upgrading the Pentagon’s “nuclear triad” of ground, air and sea based weapons.
“Modernizing the current ICBM system is a national security priority, and we are proud to be here today to reinforce our commitment to the U.S. Air Force on (the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent) and our readiness to deliver on this critical mission,” the defense contractor’s president and CEO Kathy Warden said at the ceremony. “For more than 60 years, Northrop Grumman has supported the Air Force’s ICBM programs, from our nation’s earliest missile systems to today’s sustainment work, much of which is performed here in Utah.”
For decades. Hill AFB has maintained rocket motors for the ICBMs that carry nuclear warheads and are kept at-the-ready in some 400 underground silos across five Midwestern states.
But for the first time in almost 30 years, members of Congress debated this summer whether updating ICBMs is worth the cost and if the ground-based leg of the triad is even necessary when the sea and air based operations carry more than enough nuclear firepower to deter or counter a nuclear attack — something that hasn’t happened since the United States dropped atomic bombs on Japan 74 years ago this month.
Those discussions will continue when Congress returns in September and the House and Senate come to a final agreement on a defense spending bill for 2020. The Air Force has requested $570 million to continue development of the next generation Ground Based Strategic Deterrent ICBM weapon system.
In addition to replacing the nation’s ground-base nuclear defense, the administration has requested funding to match Russia’s development of low-yield nuclear weapons designed to destroy smaller military targets rather than wipe out civilian populations. Also at stake in the spending bill is whether to extend the New START treaty, which expires in February 2021 and caps the number of nuclear weapons Russia and the U.S. can deploy.
“What happens when you’re building new systems, but you’re no longer constrained by the number of systems? I mean, this is an arms race in the making and the American public needs to know that’s a tremendously dangerous, expensive situation that raises the risk of nuclear war,” Tom Collina, director of policy for the anti-nuclear warfare nonprofit Ploughshares Fund, said in an interview. “And we need to ask the question, ‘Is that the direction we want to go?’”
That question is being asked by House Armed Service Committee Chairman Adam Smith, D-Wash.
Smith was unavailable for comment. But during House debate and in speeches the past few months, he’s questioned how much nuclear firepower is really necessary to keep adversaries in check and deter an attack.
“I think a deterrent policy, having enough nuclear weapons to ensure that nobody launches a nuclear weapon at you because you have sufficient deterrent, I think we can do that with fewer warheads,” Smith said in April, according to Defense News. “I’m not sure whether that means getting rid of one leg of the triad or simply reducing the amount in each leg.”
The committee bill, which passed the House on a party-line vote, slashed $17 billion from the Trump administration’s proposed $750 billion proposal, which passed the Senate. The House bill cut $103 million from the Air Force’s request to keep its Ground Based Strategic Deterrent on schedule.
Ploughshares and other advocates for disarmament back the House bill and see the upcoming effort to iron out differences between the House and Senate defense bills as an opportunity to resurrect the conversation on the global nuclear arms race.
But Giselle Donnelly, a resident fellow in defense and national security with the American Enterprise Institute, sees the House bill as a delay tactic with the hope a Democrat will win the White House in 2020 and scale back the nuclear modernization program.
And she predicts holding out on funding for upgrading the nation’s nuclear readiness provides “red meat for the Republicans, both in the House and the Senate, and (Democrats) probably can’t win. That will take a lot of energy for very few rewards.”
Even Smith hinted at his expectations in June before his committee debated the bill.
“You know, I can count and I don’t think I have the votes to change (nuclear) policy, but what I’ve tried to do this year is to force that debate to have a discussion,” he said in June, according to Breaking Defense.
Collina, whose been involved in nuclear proliferation issues for 25 years, says this year is the first time he can remember when an Armed Service Committee chairman has questioned the government’s nuclear defense strategy.
“We built (the ground-based missiles) during the Cold War and we’re about to spend $100 billion to rebuild this thing. We should stop and ask do we need them anymore,” he said. “This is our opportunity to do that.”
Not just the Russians
Proponents of modernizing the nation’s existing nuclear defense systems contend those questions have been asked and answered — in the 1980s.
“The thinking on both sides, in some ways, has not really evolved in the past generation,” said Donnelly. “That’s particularly true in the Democratic Party, which is sort of frozen in amber” on issues of nuclear warfare.
With treaties in place at the end of the Cold War, policymakers’ attention shifted from developing the Pentagon’s nuclear arsenal to other priorities, particularly to the more conventional warfare taking place in Iraq and Afghanistan, analysts said.
While the existing U.S. arsenal has gone through periodic upgrades it is largely unchanged, Russia and China have invested in new weaponry and defense systems over the past 20 years. During that same time, North Korea, India and Pakistan have established themselves as nuclear powers and Iran is threatening to join them.
“It’s more than just us and the Russians,” she said. “The question is what size arsenal is necessary to deter both Russia and China, while at the same time, if Iran ends up with a small but substantial arsenal, or Pakistan, which is building nuclear weapons as fast as everybody, pose a threat. What does that all mean?”
She explained that each leg of the nuclear triad has a distinct strategic quality. Submarines carrying nuclear warheads are hard to detect and bombers are flexible in their use, but the fleets of both systems are small and airfields and naval bases easy to target. And while critics say the enemy also knows where the ground-based missile silos are located, supporters of the system say the network of silos covers such a vast area it would be impossible to take out all of them. The ground-based missiles are also the most accurate and fastest to deploy.
“Regardless of whether you think the logic of nuclear deterrence is crazy,” Donnelly said, “the ground launch ICBM is everybody’s ace in the hole.”
Opponents to the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent may not have to rely on Cold War arguments, however. With Boeing dropping out of the bidding for the next phase, opponents could argue that a noncompetitive bid by Northrop Grumman could raise a “red flag” to defer the program, according to a report in National Defense
Donnelly and other proponents of modernizing the ground-based ICBMs warn that delaying its upgrade for political or economic reasons would be costly in terms of money and security, as it could weaken the country’s position in future arms control negotiations.
“A (Ground Base Strategic Deterrent) program slip or cancellation would be tantamount to a decision to unilaterally giving up one leg of our nation’s triad,” wrote Mark Gunzinger, former deputy assistant secretary of Defense, in the publication Breaking Defense.
Meantime, Northrop Grumman appears confident Republicans and the administration will win out in advancing the Ground Base Strategic Deterrent to its next phase in replacing the aging ICBM with a new generation of ground-based missiles by the end of the next decade.
Crews began excavating Wednesday and expect the defense contractor’s new facility will be complete by mid-year 2020, about the same time the Air Force will announce the contract for the next phase.
“We look forward to this facility serving as home to a diverse and talented workforce, dedicated to developing this next-generation capability that will advance the strategic deterrence mission for the U.S,” Warden said. “Our world-class, nationwide team is ready to support the GBSD program through the 21st century.”