Pentagon Orders Thinktank Study to 'Identify Critical Questions' on Future of US Nuclear Programme
The American Ground Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD) intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) is being developed as a replacement for the ageing LGM-30G Minuteman series of ICBMs, which have been in service since 1962. The Pentagon has been eyeing 2023 for conducting the first test flights of the GBSD at Vandenberg Air Force Base.
The Pentagon has commissioned a Washington thinktank - the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (CEIP) - to draw up a report on the future of the US intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) programme, reported The Guardian.
Three rounds of virtual consultations involving Pentagon officials, nuclear weapons experts and arms control advocates, launched on 7 December, are to result in options set forth by the end of January.
These will revolve around whether to extend the life of the current ICBM, the Minuteman III, or develop the new $100bn missile, known as the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD).
The US currently stores around 400 Minuteman III missiles in its launch silos, and is presumably planning to replace them with GBSDs, should the tests slated for the end of 2023 go smoothly. GBSD developer Northrop Grumman is working on the "critical design review" of the ICBM's subsystems, according to a report by Air Force magazine published earlier in the year.
GBSD is being developed as a replacement for the LGM-30G Minuteman series of ICBMs, which have been in service since 1962.
Critics of the GBSD programme noted concerns over the programme's too-high price tag amid a plethora of other budgetary pressures.
'Box-ticking Exercise' Concerns
"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," Democratic senator Ed Markey was told in a letter from Colin Kahl, the undersecretary of defence for policy, regarding the role of the CEIP, according to the outlet.
However, according to cited critics, the Carnegie Endowment final report is not the independent assessment on the issue that congressional Democrats had sought.
"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," Daryl Kimball, the executive director of the Arms Control Association, was cited as saying.
By the time the Carnegie Endowment delivers its report, the 2022 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) is due to be delivered to the White House. Critics have reportedly questioned whether the findings will have any influence on decision-making regarding the future nuclear arsenal.
When participants of the first Carnegie session doubted the feasibility of the commissioned report if its conclusions would arrive too late to influence the posture review, Pentagon officials are reported as saying:
"Well, we promised we would reach out to a number of constituencies, different people with different views...". Accordingly, there are increased concerns the Carnegie Endowment exercise is a "box-ticking exercise with no particular influence."
Proponents of arms control are said to be fearing that President Joe Biden will see his options narrowed down to those drawn up by Pentagon hawks in the NPR.
Senator Markey was cited as commenting:
"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, appeared to allay concerns saying that the review was not intended as a substitute for a thorough study 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... We would not have agreed to do this study if we had believed it was not a genuinely useful piece of work," he said.
Controversy had been sparked earlier in the year after the abrupt removal in September of Leonor Tomero, who had served as the deputy assistant secretary of defense for nuclear and missile defense policy - ostensibly due to a reorganisation.
However, Tomero, an advocate for nuclear restraint, had been also overseeing a review of America's atomic weapons posture, set to be completed early next year.
This prompted non-proliferation advocates to question whether this move could bias the review. Tomero had raised questions about the cost of the GBSD programme.
President Joe Biden ran in 2020 on a platform of opposing new nuclear weapons, saying the current US arsenal was "sufficient." However, his first defence budget backs doubling down on upgrading all three legs of the nuclear arsenal. America's push to upgrade its ground-based arm of the nuclear triad comes as Washington intensified tensions with Russia and China and amid deteriorating global security agreements.
The US also withdrew from two accords with Russia. In August 2019, Washington scrapped the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (IRNFT) Treaty, signed by the Soviet Union and the United States in 1987. It applied to deployed and non-deployed ground-based missiles of intermediate-range (1,000-5,000 kilometres) and shorter-range (500-1,000 kilometres).
The United States withdrew from the Open Skies treaty, regulating aerial surveys of regular armaments and small- and medium-range missile deployments, in November 2020.
The Pentagon has repeatedly argued its case for upgrading the American nuclear arsenal in light of the latest defence industry achievements by Russia and China.
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