WASHINGTON — Two lawmakers want to stop development of new intercontinental ballistic missiles and use the associated funding for coronavirus prevention, introducing legislation on March 26 that would curtail the Air Force’s Ground Based Strategic Deterrent program.
The Investing in Cures Before Missiles Act, offered by Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass., and Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., could signify a second attempt by progressive lawmakers to use the GBSD program as a billpayer to fund pandemic relief and preparedness efforts.
If enacted, the ICBM Act would prohibit the U.S. government for using fiscal 2022 spending on the GBSD program and the National Nuclear Security Administration’s W87-1 warhead modification program.
Instead, $1 billion of unobligated funds from the GBSD program would be transferred to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases for research on a universal coronavirus vaccine that would protect against future pandemics. Unobligated funds from the W87-1 modification program would go to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for infectious disease research.
The bill would also commission an independent study by the National Academy of Sciences to explore how to extend the life of the Minuteman III missiles until 2050.
“The United States should invest in a vaccine of mass prevention before another new land-based weapon of mass destruction,” Markey 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.”
GBSD is currently under development by Northrop Grumman, which won a $13.3 billion award in September to build a replacement for the LGM-30G Minuteman III. Acquisition costs are projected to amount to anywhere from about $93 billion to $96 billion.
In a statement, Khanna argued that extending the life of the Minuteman III is more fiscally responsible than moving forward with a new ICBM program. “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,” Khanna said.
However, U.S. Strategic Command and Air Force officials have repeatedly stated that the GBSD program is the only cost-effective way forward for modernizing the intercontinental ballistic missile leg of the nuclear triad.
“You cannot life-extend Minuteman III,” STRATCOM head Adm. Charles Richard said in January. “It is getting past the point of [where] it’s not cost-effective to life-extend Minuteman III. You’re quickly getting to the point [where] you can’t do it at all.”
The proposed legislation has amassed some early support in the House and Senate. Co-sponsors include Sens. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md.; Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.; and Jeff Merkley, D-Ore.; as well as Reps. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore.; Steve Cohen, D-Tenn.; Jesus Garcia, D-Ill.; Raul M. Grijalva, D-Ariz.; Jared Huffman, D-Calif.; Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas; Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash.; Barbara Lee, D-Calif.; James McGovern, D-Mass.; Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C.; Ilhan Omar, D-Minn.; Mark Pocan, D-Wis.; and Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass.
However, it will likely face strong headwinds.
In 2020, the House Armed Services Committee stood against a similar proposal by Khanna to move $1 billion from the GBSD program to an initiative to prevent future coronavirus pandemics. The measure was backed by committee Chairman Adam Smith, D-Wash., but he was unable to secure enough support from Democrats for it to pass through committee, failing in a 44-12 vote last July.
Earlier this month, Markey and Khanna sent a letter to President Joe Biden urging the White House to roll back the development and deployment of two Trump-era nuclear weapons: the low-yield submarine-launched W76-2 warhead, which was first demonstrated in 2019, and the sea-launched cruise missile proposed as part of the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review.
Valerie Insinna is Defense News' air warfare reporter. She previously worked the Navy/congressional beats for Defense Daily, which followed almost three years as a staff writer for National Defense Magazine. Prior to that, she worked as an editorial assistant for the Tokyo Shimbun’s Washington bureau.