Pentagon orders study into future of ICBMs amid nuclear posture debate

·4 min read
<span>Photograph: Brittany EN Murphy/AP</span>
Photograph: Brittany EN Murphy/AP

The Pentagon has asked a Washington thinktank to draw up a report on the future of the US intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) programme and deliver it before the end of January.

The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (CEIP) will present options based on three rounds of virtual consultations, which began on Tuesday, between Pentagon officials, nuclear weapons experts and arms control advocates.

Critics say the Carnegie Endowment consultations and its final report fall far short of an independent assessment that some congressional Democrats had demanded, scrutinising the main options: extending the life of the current ICBM, the Minuteman III, for a few years; or developing a totally new $100bn missile, known as the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD).

“As one of the individuals who was invited to be part of the first virtual consultation that CEIP organised yesterday [the first of three], I can say quite assuredly, that it’s not a substitute for the independent cost evaluation comparing the Minuteman III extension and the GBSD program,” said Daryl Kimball, the executive director of the Arms Control Association.

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Arms control advocates fear that Biden will not keep his pledge to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in US defence planning, and that the president will be boxed in by a set of options drawn up by nuclear hawks in the Pentagon in the 2022 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR).

The role of the CEIP was laid out in a letter from Colin Kahl, the undersecretary of defence for policy, to the Democratic senator Ed Markey, and a series of Pentagon responses to Markey’s follow-up questions about the NPR.

“The department has … tasked the Carnegie Endowment to conduct an external study of diverse views on the intercontinental ballistic missile leg of the nuclear triad to inform the NPR,” Markey was told.

However, by the time the Carnegie Endowment delivers its report, in late January, the NPR is due to be delivered to the White House, raising questions on whether its findings will have any influence on decisions about the future nuclear arsenal.

In the first Carnegie session, some of the participants asked Pentagon officials what the point of the exercise was, if its conclusions would come too late to influence the posture review.

“Their response was: ‘Well, we promised we would reach out to a number of constituencies, different people with different views’,” one participant said. “And so it is a box-ticking exercise with no particular influence.”

Commenting on the administration’s approach to drafting its nuclear weapons policy, Senator Markey said: “I’m pleased that the Biden administration says it is committed to listening to voices outside of the nuclear weapons confederacy that advocate an unnecessary and wasteful $1.2tn in upgrades.

“But the proof will be in the pudding whether the Pentagon gives the president options to boldly reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our defence strategy – or if it defies the president’s guidance.”

James Acton, the co-director of the CEIP’s nuclear policy programme, said the project was not intended as a substitute for a thorough study, based on classified data, of the cost and feasibility of a Minuteman III life extension.

“What we are doing is to tee up options and identify critical questions for further study, and to do that we are trying to engage a genuinely wide range of expertise,” Acton said. “We would not have agreed to do this study if we had believed it was not a genuinely useful piece of work.”

One of the controversies plaguing the Pentagon’s drafting of the NPR was the abrupt removal in September of the woman in charge of the process, Leonor Tomero, who had raised questions about the cost of the GBSD programme, raising the ire of senior Republicans in Congress.

The Pentagon insisted that her job had been eliminated as part of a bureaucratic reorganisation and that she would be given another role. The assistant secretary of defence Mara Karlin assured Markey that Tomero had not been dismissed. However, Tomero has not been offered another job in the administration, according to her friends.

“Leonor Tomero was fired and is now being blackballed because those of us on the outside are complaining,” said Jeffrey Lewis, a professor at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. “What’s the point of working with the Democrats when they fire anyone who doesn’t please the Republicans? Unless congressional Democrats come to life, Biden’s nuclear posture review is going to look exactly like Trump’s.”

A defence department spokesman said the Pentagon had nothing to add to its previous account of Tomero’s departure.

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