Democrats take aim at the US’s new $264 billion ICBM amid search for cash to boost the military

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An unarmed Minuteman III ICBM is launched during a test at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, August 2, 2017. US Air Force
  • The Biden administration’s 2022 budget has sparked new debate about military funding.
  • The GBSD, a replacement for the US’s current ICBM’s, has attracted particular scrutiny.
  • Pausing the GBSD could save $37 billion “without any deterioration of our nuclear deterrence,” Rep. John Garamendi told Insider.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Amid debates over how much funding the US military needs to counter China and Russia, Democratic lawmakers have taken aim at a major new nuclear weapon, the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent, to pay for other priorities.

“It’s a matter of how we’re going to spend a very precious resource called money,” Rep. John Garamendi, who chairs the House Armed Services Committee’s readiness subcommittee, told Insider in an interview Thursday.

The GBSD, work on which began during the Obama administration, will replace the Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile, which has been in service since the 1970s.

Cost estimates for the GBSD are close to $100 billion for acquisition and $264 billion over its lifetime, which is set to run to the mid-2070s. Northrop Grumman received a $13.3 billion contract for the weapon in September.

The GBSD is set for its first flight in 2023 and to hit initial operational capability in 2029, with all 400 of the new missiles deployed by 2036.

F.E. Warren Air Force Base ICBM missile silo Wyoming
A US airman gives a tour of ICBM training facilities on F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming, July 22, 2012. US Air Force/R.J. Oriez

GBSD proponents say the Minuteman’s service life can’t be extended, but Garamendi has said Air Force officials “confirmed” it could and has argued for a GBSD pause until the mid-2030s.

“That is exactly what the Air Force is going to do with most of the Minuteman IIIs that are presently in the silos. They will be life-extended for the next 15 to 20 years as the GBSD is replacing the Minuteman III,” said Garamendi, who also sits on the subcommittee that oversees nuclear weapons.

With that pause, over the next 10 years “some $37 billion could be saved and used for other purposes without any deterioration of our nuclear deterrence,” Garamendi added, citing estimates from a 2017 Congressional Budget Office report.

That money could be spent on other priorities, such as more warships, new weapons like hypersonic missiles, as well as artificial-intelligence and cyber capabilities, Garamendi said.

Gen. Timothy Ray, head of Air Force Global Strike Command, and other officials have said developing the GBSD would save $38 billion compared to extending the Minuteman III through 2075.

Garamendi called that a “fallacious argument,” citing estimates that showed life-extensions were cheaper over shorter periods, such as the CBO’s 15-year estimate, which are “the time horizon in which all of us are living.”

“To draw a conclusion based upon the cost 55 years from now is a stretch,” Garamendi said.

‘The hawks want it all’

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A missile silo at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, July 17, 2007. Kacper Pempel/Reuters

Progressive activists and lawmakers have also called to pause or halt the GBSD.

Sen. Ed Markey and Rep. Ro Khanna introduced a bill in March to redirect GBSD funding to COVID-19 vaccine research. (A similar measure from Khanna was voted down by the House Armed Services Committee in 2020.)

Former defense officials, including former Defense Secretary William Perry, have argued ICBMs are unnecessary for deterrence and also raise the risks of a nuclear war.

Current military leaders and Democratic and Republican lawmakers say it’s necessary to maintain all three legs of the nuclear triad: ICBMs, submarine-launched ballistic missiles, and air-launched weapons.

Asked by Garamendi at a hearing this month about pausing the GBSD to save $37 billion, Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said he “would not recommend taking that money away and putting it elsewhere.”

“The recapitalization of the entire triad, to include the GBSD, is critical to our nation’s security,” Milley said, adding that with a delay of 12 to 15 years, “you’ll have a gap in the land-based leg.”

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A Minuteman III missile launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base on July 28, 1971. AP Photo

At a press conference Thursday, Republican Sen. Jodi Ernst said the US “cannot trade” a GBSD pause for additional funds.

“For too long and many administrations, we were not as focused as we should have been on those modernization efforts, and it has set us much further behind than we should be,” Ernst said. “If we delay for a dozen years, it would be extremely hard to catch back up. If we look at Russia, China, Iran’s activities and what they want to do with enrichment, we can’t afford that.”

Garamendi countered that a Minuteman extension was already part the GBSD plan, that the older missile will remain a deterrent, and that work done on the GBSD “would be available to carry forward.”

“The delivery systems are not standing still. They’re rapidly changing, and it may very well be that 10 years from now, 15 years from now, the ICBM in silo is not the deterrent that we would count on” Garamendi said.

Rep. Adam Smith, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said Tuesday that “as it is currently being explained to us,” a Minuteman life extension would cost more than develop GBSD but that doesn’t necessarily mean the US needs to buy all 400 new missiles or “even that we need that leg of the triad.”

The Biden administration’s 2022 Defense Department budget invests $2.6 billion in the GBSD, up from $1.5 billion in the Trump administration’s 2021 budget.

Progressives have criticized Biden’s $715 billion request for the Pentagon in 2022, a slight increase over 2021, as too big. (Moderate Democrats called it “strong and sensible.”) Republicans have criticized it for not meeting the 3% to 5% annual increase that military leaders and others have recommended.

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Airmen mount a refurbished nuclear warhead on a Minuteman III in a silo in Scottsbluff, Nebraska, April 15, 1997. AP Photo/Eric Draper

“They are increasing spending everywhere on everything, with one exception,” Sen. Dan Sullivan said of Biden’s overall budget at the press conference Thursday. “That’s the big message we’re sending. The prioritization of our military with this budget is last.”

“There’s no doubt that the hawks want it all,” Garamendi said, adding that Biden’s budget “chose to keep the GDSB in place, but they also made very, very hard choices, which are going to be very difficult for the [House Armed Services] committee to accept.”

While work on the GBSD has begun, its future may depend on the Biden administration’s ongoing Nuclear Posture Review.

Smith said Tuesday that while “we’re not going to kill the GBSD,” the Minuteman IIIs would “be fine for a little while,” allowing time for that review to inform a final decision.

Garamendi noted that Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin declined to commit to the GBSD when asked about it at the hearing with Milley, saying that the “right balance” of forces would be informed by the review.

“He said that twice,” Garamendi said. “I’m sure he was honest, and I want to believe that he was honest that, in fact, the issue of the GBSD is under consideration – that is, a pause on the GBSD – so we’ll see.”

This story has been updated with comments from Rep. Adam Smith.