Most people probably have not heard the term “nuclear sponge” before. We hadn’t until recently.
It refers to Nebraska, Wyoming, Colorado, Montana and North Dakota, where U.S. land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) sit in underground silos, serving as a “sponge” for nuclear attacks by Russia, China or another adversary armed with nuclear weapons. The idea is the missiles in these states would be targeted, since the adversary knows exactly where they are, and would seek to destroy them before they could be launched in a nuclear war. As such, these missiles would draw at least some fire away from other natural targets, such as the national capital in Washington, D.C., or other large population centers.
Nobody asked the people in the Nebraska Panhandle, or in the other states, for their consent to be a nuclear sponge, or more accurately, a target.
Largely forgotten but not gone, 400 Minuteman III ICBMS have been in their silos since 1959, despite the Cold War having ended nearly 30 years ago. Now comes a Strangelovian plan to replace those missiles with new ones, in a program dubbed the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent (GNSD), or more properly, the Money Pit Missile.
The projected cost of our tax dollars for these new weapons of omnicide is $264 billion, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office. The overall cost of upgrading the entire US nuclear weapons complex is projected by the CBO at $1.7 trillion over 30 years. Congress and three successive administrations, including the current one, seem unconcerned about the opportunity cost of this folly.
Surely, were there a national referendum on priorities, people would choose addressing climate chaos and pandemics, remedying racial and economic inequality, and creating green jobs by sustainably rebuilding the country’s crumbling infrastructure, over new nuclear weapons. Said weapons are supposedly only for deterrence, designed never to be used, to rust in peace.
If there were a nuclear war, all life on Earth would be at risk, as even a “limited” nuclear war, for instance between India and Pakistan, could cause nuclear winter, threatening the global food and water supply. As noted, the ICBMs are stationary, and their locations known by other nations’ militaries and by the farmers and ranchers whose land the silos abut. The other two legs of the U.S. nuclear triad, long-range bombers and nuclear submarines, are much harder to target. Bombers can be scrambled into the air, so they are not sitting duck targets for an attack, and submarines are stealthy, hiding deep in the world’s oceans. So the target and nuclear sponge element are unique to the ICBM force.
Perhaps if the people in these five states were fully aware of and consented to this arrangement, that would be copasetic. But no such consent was ever asked, nor granted, by the foreign policy elites, mostly on the east coast, who know and care little about the everyday concerns of folks in the Heartland and Mountain West.
Joe Biden has astutely talked about building a “foreign policy for the middle class,” but unfortunately it appears to be the same old foreign and military policy for the weapons contractors. His proposed $753 billion Pentagon budget is an increase over Trump’s bloated war budgets.
Northrop Grumman is the lead contractor on the Money Pit Missile Program, and not surprisingly, has spent millions in congressional lobbying and campaign contributions to make sure its bread is buttered and the GBSD gets built to fatten profits.
This is madness. Let’s wring out the nuclear sponge. Let’s take responsibility to lead in making Nebraska, the region, the country and world safer. Let’s stop the GBSD, and while we’re at it, why not ditch the entire ICBM leg of the nuclear triad? U.S. Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., and U.S. Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., have introduced the ICBM (Investing in Cures Before Missiles) Act to cut funding for the Money Pit Missile, refurbish the existing Minuteman force as needed, and invest instead in a universal coronavirus vaccine.
Let’s lead on converting the nuclear missile bases to solar energy or wind farms, or whatever other more productive, less dangerous uses the communities now hosting missile silos need.
If we can eliminate one leg of the triad, then why not the others? Stopping the Money Pit missile could be an important step toward the global elimination of nuclear weapons, as 86 countries have agreed to by joining the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. Why not start here, and now, in Nebraska? This isn’t a liberal or conservative issue; it’s about human survival.
Paul Olson is professor emeritus at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the former president of Nebraskans for Peace, and a 75-year opponent of the arms race. Kevin Martin is president of Peace Action, the country’s largest peace and disarmament organization with 200,000 supporters nationwide, at peaceaction.org.