Time to rethink the US nuclear arsenal

The conflicts in Ukraine and Gaza have captured most of the public attention when it comes to thinking about U.S. foreign policy, and rightly so, given the devastating human consequences. But there is another issue that cannot be ignored if we want to secure the future of life on this planet — a new nuclear arms race.

The Pentagon has committed $2 trillion to producing a new generation of nuclear weapons over the next three decades, and Russia and China are in the midst of their own buildups. Most of the nuclear arms control agreements that helped stave off a nuclear confrontation during the Cold War lie in tatters, and the last major U.S.-Russia accord — the New START nuclear arms reduction treaty – is hanging by a thread.


These developments, along with Vladimir Putin’s nuclear threats in connection with the war in Ukraine, have prompted the expert group assembled by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists to set their Doomsday Clock— a measure of the risk of a nuclear war — at just 90 seconds to midnight.

But Congress and the Biden administration have a chance to reverse the momentum toward a conflict no one wants, and few if any could survive. They should rethink the U.S. commitment to the most dangerous weapon in our arsenal — intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). Experts like former Defense Secretary William Perry have pointed out that ICBMs are particularly high risk because a president would only have a matter of minutes to decide whether to launch them amid threat of an attack, greatly increasing the risk of an accidental nuclear war based on a false alarm.

Despite these dangers, until now, ICBMs have been politically invulnerable due to a combination of a misguided nuclear doctrine and the power of the corporations and members of Congress that benefit directly or indirectly from the billions we spend building and maintaining them.

That may be about to change. Huge cost overruns on the new ICBM, known as the Sentinel, have forced the Pentagon to review the program. The estimated procurement cost of the system has jumped by a hefty 37% in the last few years alone, with lifetime costs of at least $315 billion. The cost growth has triggered the Pentagon review, which could recommend anything from canceling the program to going full speed ahead at the expense of other defense priorities.

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin should take advantage of this moment to rethink, and ideally terminate, the Sentinel program as a first step toward removing ICBMs from the arsenal altogether. The United States has more than enough nuclear warheads on bombers and submarine-based missiles to dissuade any adversary from attacking us. Getting rid of ICBMs would make us safer by reducing the risk of accidental war, and curbing the mindless rush toward new nuclear weapons of all types could help create a better atmosphere for global reductions.

Congress, which controls the purse strings, has a critical role to play in eliminating ICBMs, a move that would reshape our nuclear arsenal to make it both cheaper and more effective. In a recent press conference held by the Congressional Nuclear Weapons and Arms Control Working Group, former Rep. John Tierney of the Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation offered a blunt indictment of ICBMs:

“Not only are intercontinental ballistic missiles redundant, but they are prone to a high risk of accidental use … They do not make us any safer. Their only value is to the defense contractors who line their fat pockets with large cost overruns at the expense of our taxpayers. It has got to stop.”

The choice is clear. Eliminate dangerous and costly ICBMs, or keep building them, not to mount a better defense, but to serve the financial needs of the companies and politicians that directly or indirectly benefit from their existence. When it comes to ICBMs, it’s time to put the public interest above special interests. There’s too much at stake to do otherwise.

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