The international community is increasingly prioritizing the voices of young experts in nuclear nonproliferation and related issues. This generation—my generation—is facing the simultaneous pressure to pursue higher education to be successful and, at least in the United States, the burden of taking on gargantuan amounts of student debt. As someone who has invested more than $100,000 in educating myself about topics as salient as nuclear nonproliferation, US-Russian arms control, and international diplomacy, I find it absolutely incomprehensible why the United States puts the kind of money it does into military spending ($778 billion in 2020)—and more specifically into the obscene budget for the nuclear modernization project, which will cost taxpayers an estimated $1.2 trillion to $1.7 trillion over 30 years.
These figures lead me, and I suspect many other young American nuclear policy experts, to question why my government is spending this level of money to modernize a leg of the US nuclear triad—namely intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs)—that not only is outrageously expensive but also inherently destabilizing and unnecessary for deterrence.
Former US Defense Secretary William Perry and Ploughshares Fund Policy Director Tom Z. Collina said it in their 2020 book, The Button. Arms Control Association Executive Director Daryl Kimball said it 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 have written these words verbatim, but they have outlined in frightening and depressing fashion why ICBMs should be phased out. There are three main reasons for this: the particular danger ICBMs pose, their redundancy in nuclear deterrence, and their ludicrous cost.
They are the most dangerous leg of the nuclear triad. They are the epitome of use-it-or-lose-it weapons in a crisis. As Perry and Collina point out, Russia knows exactly where all the United States’ 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 incoming attack, true or mistaken, the US could either launch its ICBMs so that they are not destroyed should the attack be genuine, or wait to ensure that the attack is real, thus guaranteeing that a majority of American ICBMs would be destroyed. There is no reason to continue with a US nuclear strategy that creates this much risk, especially given the plethora of false alarms of incoming attacks, which are a matter of public record. Put simply, ICBMs are too dangerous.
Proponents of ICBMs say we need to retain them as a “sponge” that, in a first-strike, full-war scenario, would require an attacker to expend much of its nuclear forces to take out US ICBMs. But the US can respond to a nuclear attack with or without ICBMs. As Kimball and others point out, just one US nuclear-armed submarine, which carries on the order of 160 thermonuclear warheads with yields far greater than the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, would be enough to devastate an entire country in a second strike. Nuclear-armed submarines are, by design, nearly impossible for other countries to track. If the goal is retaining a second-strike capability to ensure a credible deterrent, ICBMs are redundant.
If one accepts the previous two arguments—that ICBMs are needlessly dangerous and, in fact, redundant—it becomes even harder to understand why the United States spends so much money on them. The 2021 budget for the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent, the planned replacement for today’s ICBMs, is $1.5 billion. That is for just one year. The Biden administration’s ask for this program in 2022 is $2.6 billion.
Nuclear policy discourse (correctly) includes increasing input from next-generation or emerging experts—pick your moniker. Here are just a few reasons, from a young expert’s perspective, why President Biden should, at the very least, freeze the budget for the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent, as Kimball suggests for a first step, noting that even just freezing this budget at 2021 levels would save $1 billion. Or better yet, phase out ICBMs altogether, as Perry and Collina suggest. Either of these steps could provide significant cost savings.
Because of the way the federal budget is built, with separate categories for defense and non-defense spending, any immediate cost savings from an ICBM budget freeze would be redirected to other projects within the Defense Department and could not be used for non-military projects. Still, it’s a worthwhile thought experiment to consider how future budget requests could phase out ICBMs while increasing funding for other projects by an equivalent amount. The financial strains in student loan debt, healthcare costs, climate change mitigation, and even budgetary issues in nuclear governance demonstrate that there are many better uses for that money.
Student debt. This is the raison d’etre for my rant. Borrowers in the United States already owe nearly $1.6 trillion for educational loans. It is incomprehensible to me and to many other young experts why the country that spends more than any other nation on defense cannot make education affordable for its youth. The federal government, which owns more than 90 percent of US student loan debt, estimates that approximately one third of this 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 money saved on missiles and missile modernization could be used to bolster the young generation of American leaders, rather than to weigh it down.
Healthcare. A similar argument applies to healthcare. The United States is the only industrialized nation 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 came under immense pressure. It was a revelation to me, when I moved to Austria, that a trip to the emergency room there wouldn’t drown me in bills I couldn’t pay. The first time I went to pick up medication and wasn’t handed a bill, the pharmacist looked at me and said, “Yes, no bill—in this country we believe healthcare is a human right.” Imagine how far the money from the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent program could go toward easing strains on the American healthcare system.
Climate change. It’s not just Greta Thunberg who’s unhappy with the global response to climate change—it’s at least 86 percent of young Americans, and most of us understand that human activities are to blame. To mitigate the effects of climate change, there has to be more money invested in carbon-friendly energy. It doesn’t have to be nuclear energy (although Russian colleagues and I argued in 2020 that nuclear is among the safer energy sources). Funds freed up from the ICBM modernization program could go to research and development for advanced reactor designs; and construction of more wind turbines, solar panels, and hydroelectric stations.
Nuclear safeguards. The international community relies on the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to ensure that nuclear technology remains in peaceful uses. The IAEA applied nuclear safeguards in 183 countries in 2020, and it did so to the tune of 148.7 million euros (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 required to be under safeguards is growing, while the IAEA continues to work with a zero-real-growth budget (increasing only enough to account for inflation). The United States is already the IAEA’s largest funder, but the money spent on ICBMs and their modernization would be better spent on support to the IAEA, including Member State Support Programs that augment safeguards activities.
These are just a few items that the United States government could prioritize over ICBMs. Other options include funding verification research, through initiatives like the International Partnership for Nuclear Disarmament Verification, so that when further reductions in nuclear arms become possible, we have the technology to support that. The United States could also contribute more to the implementation of the UN Sustainable Development Goals, including funding to make up for progress lost due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Young experts in this field are not naïve. We are fully aware that, as long as they exist, nuclear weapons will continue to require spending on maintenance to ensure safety and reliability, regardless of whether these weapons are in silos, on submarines, or in the air. However, it does not make sense, financial or otherwise, to invest enormous sums of money in modernizing the ICBM leg of the nuclear triad when it is not needed for national security.
President Biden has an opportunity here. The hole in arms control left by the US withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty is aching to be filled. The slow rot of the Open Skies Treaty makes this hole even deeper. Why not fill it by unilaterally phasing out an entire class of nuclear weapons? Removing the ICBMs from the US nuclear fleet, even pledging to do so, would provide a sorely needed confidence-building measure in the US-Russia relationship.
My generation is tired of seeing billions directed to dangerous, destabilizing weapons rather than to investments in our future. It’s time for ICBMs to go.
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