Democrats call for $1bn shift from weapons of mass destruction to 'vaccine of mass prevention'
Congressional Democrats are introducing legislation to transfer $1bn in funding from a controversial new intercontinental ballistic missile to the development of a universal Covid vaccine.
The Investing in Cures Before Missiles (ICBM) Act, introduced in the House and Senate on Friday, would stop funding on the proposed new missile, known as the ground-based strategic deterrent (GBSD) which is projected to cost a total of $264bn over its projected lifespan, and discontinue spending on a linked warhead modification program.
Instead, the life of the existing US intercontinental ballistic missile, the Minuteman III, would be extended until 2050, and an independent study commissioned on how best to do that.
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“The United States should invest in a vaccine of mass prevention before another new land-based weapon of mass destruction,” Senator Edward Markey of Massachusetts, co-author of the bill, said.
“The ICBM Act makes clear that we can begin to phase out the cold-war nuclear posture that risks accidental nuclear war while still deterring adversaries and assuring allies, and redirect those savings to the clear and present dangers presented by coronaviruses and other emerging and infectious diseases.”
Arms control experts say static intercontinental ballistic missiles, of which the US has 400 in silos across the northern midwest, are inherently destabilizing and dangerous, because a president would have just a few minutes to launch them on the basis of early warning signals of an impending enemy attack, or risk losing them to a pre-emptive strike. They point to a history of near-launches based on defective data, and the risk of cyber-attacks distorting early warning systems.
“With all of the global challenges we face, the last thing we should be doing is giving billions to defense contractors to build missiles we don’t need to keep as a strong nuclear deterrence,” Ro Khanna, Democratic congressman from California and the bill’s co-author in the House, said.
In September 2020, Northrop Grumman was awarded an uncontested bid for the $13.3bn engineering, manufacturing and development phase of GBSD, after its only rival for the vast contract, Boeing, pulled out of the race complaining of a rigged competition.
The Biden administration’s intentions on the GBSD’s future are unclear, but an early signal may come in its first defence budget expected in the next few weeks.
The new ICBM bill would transfer of $1bn in funding for the GBSD to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (Niaid) for development work on a universal coronavirus vaccine. It would also divert money from the program to modify the W87-1 nuclear warhead to fit the GBSD, and dedicate it to research and preparations to combat future bio-threats. And it would launch an independent study to “explore viable technical solutions to extend the Minuteman III” intercontinental ballistic missile to 2050.
When Khanna tried to introduce a similar bill last July it was killed in the House armed services committee by a decisive bipartisan vote of 44-12. A proposed Minuteman extension study was also voted down.
“Rarely is a congressional study controversial. This just shows how afraid Northrop Grumman is about the results of the independent study,” Khanna told the Guardian. “They lobbied to kill a simple study, to see if the Minuteman III could be extended.”
The congressman said he was optimistic the new administration would support the bill.
“This will remain an uphill battle. Northrop Grumman is lobbying hard against this bill,” Khanna said. “Given we have Democratic majorities in both chambers and a Democrat in the White House, we think our chances are better, particularly by putting pressure on the administration to pause GBSD and consider extending Minuteman III.”
Jessica Sleight, the program director at Global Zero, a disarmament advocacy group, said: “The US nuclear arsenal far exceeds any plausible mission requirements put forth by the Pentagon. Even in the best of times, $264bn for new nuclear missiles is money we can’t spare for weapons we don’t need. In the middle of a devastating pandemic, it’s irresponsible.”