Meet the Senate nuke caucus, busting the budget and making the world less safe

These lawmakers represent states with a direct interest in pouring billions into modernizing and building new weapons.

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Democrats might control the legislative and executive branches of the U.S. government right now, but a small Republican-dominated Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) Coalition exercises outsized influence in a frightening campaign for nuclear rearmament.

The coalition, comprising six senators from states that house, develop, or test underground land-based nuclear weapons, is pushing a wasteful and dangerous $1.7 trillion, decades-long plan to produce new nuclear weapons, some with warheads 20 times more powerful than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

While the 1980s witnessed the nuclear freeze and a mass movement to demand nuclear disarmament between the U.S. and Soviet Union, the 1990s gave birth to the missile caucus, the Congressional engine careening the U.S. into a renewed nuclear arms race.

All but one of the members of this caucus is a Republican from a deep red state — including North Dakota, Montana, Wyoming, Utah and South Dakota — that didn’t vote for Joe Biden. Members of the Senate ICBM Coalition are Co-Chairs John Hoeven (R-N.D.) and Jon Tester (D-Mont.); John Barrasso (R-Wyo.); Steve Daines (R-Mont); Mike Lee (R-Utah); and Mike Rounds (R-S.D.).

The lone Democrat, Tester, a third-generation farmer and former elementary school music teacher, wields a critical gavel as Chair of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense, a committee that will write the appropriations bill for military expenditures. Tester told the D.C.-based Advanced Nuclear Weapons Alliance this year that he was committed to keeping new nuclear weapons production “on track.”

If the ICBM Coalition and the weapons lobby have their way, the United States will brandish a new nuclear arsenal in order to, in their view, replace aging and outdated nuclear weapons ill-suited to meet the challenges of a renewed Cold War. Critics charge that the development and production of new nuclear weapons violates the spirit and letter of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), signed by the United States and Soviet Union in 1968.

In addition to violating a treaty joined by 191 nations, U.S. production of new nuclear weapons is likely to escalate the arms race, sabotage future arms control negotiations with Russia or China and encourage non-nuclear nations to enrich weapons-grade uranium.

Although it was the Trump administration that in 2020 awarded Northrop Grumman a $13.3 billion sole-source contract to build new land-based nuclear missiles called Ground Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD), it is the Biden administration that is slated to include, as part of its record high $753 billion military budget, $30 billion or more for the GBSD. This would be  a down payment on the estimated $264 billion cost to replace all 400 underground Minuteman III missiles in North Dakota, Wyoming, Montana, Nebraska and Colorado, from 2029 through 2075.

The GBSD is part of a euphemistically labeled “nuclear modernization” program proposing, in addition to new ICBMs, new ballistic missile submarines outfitted with low-yield, five-kiloton tactical nuclear weapons, as opposed to larger 100-kiloton “strategic” nuclear weapons meant for a global nuclear showdown. The Trump administration’s 2018 nuclear posture review reasoned these “more usable” tactical nuclear weapons would keep the Russians and Chinese in check. Critics argue that these smaller, shorter-range tactical nuclear weapons blur the distinction between conventional and nuclear war, making these weapons more likely to be employed under the misguided assumption that a nuclear war can be limited.

The push for rearmament, including a new nuclear cruise missile, a modified gravity bomb with two-stage radiation implosion and long-range strike bomber, comes amid concern the Biden administration’s heated anti-China rhetoric could plunge us into a nuclear war. Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg recently released classified documents that revealed U.S. military leaders penned plans in 1958 to execute a first nuclear strike against China in a dispute over Taiwan’s sovereignty. According to the documents, Pentagon officials were willing to risk a million deaths in the event the Soviet Union fired back with nuclear weapons.  In releasing the classified material and purposefully risking prosecution, Ellsberg told the New York Times, “I do not believe the participants were more stupid or thoughtless than those in between or in the current cabinet.”

With Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, former Secretary of Defense Ash Carter, Republicans and Tester cheerleading for the GBSD, a missile caucus lobbyist might think the American people would prefer to spend hundreds of billions of dollars on new ICBMs and nearly two-trillion dollars on the entire nuclear escalation package than investing in Medicare for All or clean water in Flint, Michigan. A 2020 University of Maryland poll revealed, however, that 61 percent of Americans–including both Democratic and Republican majorities–support phasing out the United States’s 400 land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles.

Knowing this, why would Biden and Democratic politicians carry out the mission of the small Republican-dominated missile caucus and its chums in the profitable weapons industry? Northrop Grumman, with a net worth of $50 billion, promises nuclear rearmament will create 10,000 jobs, but compare that number to the 3-million employed under FDR’s Civilian Conservation Corps that planted 3-billion trees.

The answer to why the missile caucus is so influential is: money. And lots of it.

ICBM weapons contractors contributed more than $15 million from 2012-2020 to members of the Senate and House Armed Services and Appropriations committees and subcommittees, according to the Arms Control Association. Steven Semler, co-founder of the Security Policy Reform Institute, notes these contractors even buy influence among members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC), last year donating $376,650 to Democrat Adam Smith (D-Wash.), Chair of the House Armed Services Committee; $148,135 to Donald Norcross (D-N.J.) and $63,086 to Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.), all of whom belong to the CPC.

While Biden may fear appearing “soft” on defense if he retreats from relaunching our nuclear program, progressives are preparing for a fierce debate. GBSD opponents include an impressive diplomatic team: William Perry, former Secretary of Defense; Daniel Ellsberg, author, The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner; and William Hartung, director of the Arms and Security Program at the Center for International Policy.

Hartung, author of Prophets of War: Lockheed Martin and the Making of the Military-Industrial Complex,recommends nixing the ICBMs entirely“Because of their extreme vulnerability to attack, ICBMs are kept on high alert status, leaving the president a matter of minutes to decide whether to launch them on warning of an impending attack,” he says.

There is no law of gravity that compels the current president or Congress to continue funding this drive for nuclear rearmament.

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