As the Biden administration considers changes to Trump-era nuclear policy, 60 national and regional organizations released a statement this week calling for the elimination of 400 land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) that are “now armed and on hair-trigger alert in the United States.”
“Intercontinental ballistic missiles are uniquely dangerous, greatly increasing the chances that a false alarm or miscalculation will result in nuclear war,” the statement reads. “There is no more important step the United States could take to reduce the chances of a global nuclear holocaust than to eliminate its ICBMs.”
Progressives, scientists and some Democrats in Congress are also pushing President Joe Biden, who has pledged to reduce U.S. reliance on nuclear weapons in its defense strategy, to adopt a “no first use” policy and declare that the U.S. will never be the first to launch a nuclear attack. Taking such a stance would strengthen the U.S. position in global nonproliferation talks, advocates say.
The White House is slowly pursuing such talks with other nuclear-armed governments including Russia, the United Kingdom and France, which recently issued a joint statement declaring that “nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.” Pakistan and India, two regional rivals armed with nuclear weapons, issued statements calling the joint statement a positive development in international arms control.
A “no first use” or “sole purpose” policy, advocates say, would also be consistent with the Democratic Party platform and Biden himself, who has said that nuclear weapons should only be used to deter nuclear attack. The Trump administration went in the opposite direction with its 2018 Nuclear Posture Review, which says that deterring a nuclear attack is not the “sole purpose” of nuclear weapons and nuclear war could be used to deter “non-nuclear” attacks and achieve “U.S. objectives” if deterrence fails.
The Biden administration is working on a new Nuclear Posture Review, which could be completed early this year, according to Politico. The administration would not comment on internal deliberations for the review, but unnamed officials told Politico it is unlikely to include deep cuts to nuclear weapons spending as the U.S. works to overhaul and modernize its vast nuclear arsenal.
Federal spending on nuclear forces is projected to reach $634 billion over the next decade, a 28 percent increase over 2019 projections, according to the Congressional Budget Office. Advocates for arms control said Biden should have — and still could — put the most controversial nuclear weapons projects approved under former President Donald Trump on pause until the new posture review is completed.
Writing for Defense One, Tom Collina, the policy director at the peace group Ploughshares, argues that Biden must act fast to rein in a Pentagon bureaucracy intent on keeping money flowing to the nuclear war machine, or his own policy will end up looking a lot like Trump’s:
The good news is that President Biden knows more about nuclear policy than any commander-in-chief in recent history. If Biden makes this a priority, there is every reason to think that he will approve new policies that will reduce the risk of nuclear war and make the nation and world safer.
Unfortunately, the president has left these crucial issues to officials who are not committed to his vision. A key strategy document — called the Nuclear Posture Review — has been drafted by an entrenched Pentagon bureaucracy that apparently wants to keep core elements of the Trump agenda intact, including new nuclear weapons and more ways to use them.
Biden is under pressure from conservative war hawks in Congress and the Pentagon to avoid cuts to new nuclear weapons programs approved under Trump, as Russia and China are thought to be bolstering their own arsenals. These proposed weapons systems are different than the existing ICBMs, which require billions of tax dollars for upkeep and sit ready to launch in silos located on the U.S. mainland.
The U.S. maintains a vast nuclear arsenal that can strike from the air, sea and land. The statement issued this week reports that 400 ICBM missile silos — relics of the arms race with the Soviet Union that first raised fears that global nuclear war that would lay waste of all of human civilization — are scattered across Colorado, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota and Wyoming.
Citing a former Defense Secretary William Perry, the 60 peace and civil society groups issued the “call to eliminate ICBMs” on Wednesday. Perry has explained that the ICBMs are the weapons most likely to spark a catastrophic nuclear war. If enemy missiles were launched at the U.S., the president would only have about 30 minutes to decide whether to retaliate before the ICBMs are destroyed, a terrible decision that could result in “nuclear winter,” according to the statement.
“Rather than being any kind of deterrent, ICBMs are the opposite — a foreseeable catalyst for nuclear attack. ICBMs certainly waste billions of dollars, but what makes them unique is the threat that they pose to all of humanity,” the statement reads.
Even if the ICBMs facilities were closed, the U.S. would still retain a devastating nuclear arsenal that could respond to attacks across the world. Missiles carried on submarines and aircraft could kill millions of people. However, they are not subject to the same “use them or lose them” dilemma as the ICBMs.
“Until now, the public discussion has been almost entirely limited to the narrow question of whether to build a new ICBM system or stick with the existing Minuteman III missiles for decades longer,” said Norman Solomon, national director of RootsAction, one of the groups that signed the statement. “That’s like arguing over whether to refurbish the deck chairs on the nuclear Titanic. Both options retain the same unique dangers of nuclear war that ICBMs involve.”