Biden Enlists Nuclear Disarmament Proponents To Study ICBM Alternatives

Pentagon contract pushes reduction in ICBMs as China, Russia modernize and increase missile capabilities

A Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) interceptor is launched during a successful intercept test
A U.S. test missile launched in 2016 / Reuters
November 29, 2021

The Biden administration has enlisted two nuclear-disarmament advocates to present the Defense Department with "alternatives" to the United States' long-standing intercontinental ballistic missiles system, according to a copy of the project proposal obtained by the Washington Free Beacon.

The Defense Department asked the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace to study "alternatives as they relate to options for the land-based leg of the U.S. nuclear triad" and in January submit a report to the secretary of defense, according to the project proposal.

The two Carnegie researchers leading the project, George Perkovich and James Acton, are authors of the 2009 compendium Abolishing Nuclear Weapons: A Debate, which proposes ways to reach total nuclear disarmament. Acton said in March the government should pause the ICBM replacement program and instead try to extend the life of existing missiles. He argued that technological advances could eventually "devalue silo-based ICBMs and cause future Congresses, as well as the American people, to look back with incomprehension at the decision to pursue [the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent system]."

The contract is part of the Biden administration's larger pushback effort against Congress, which has been urging the administration to modernize and replace the country's decaying, 50-year-old Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles arsenal, the land-based component of the United States' "nuclear triad." President Joe Biden last week issued a formal White House objection to a provision in the national defense spending bill that would have prohibited him from reducing the 400-missile stockpile.

"At Department of Defense's request, the Carnegie Endowment will study policy issues pertaining to the future of the land-based leg of the U.S. nuclear triad, starting with an assumption that the United States will retain ICBMs. In our research we will engage a wide spectrum of experts with different views to analyze how to ensure a robust, cost-effective nuclear deterrent while reducing the risk of nuclear war," said George Perkovich, vice president for studies at Carnegie.

The Department of Defense did not respond to a request for comment.

Under the Trump administration, the United States last year started developing a replacement system for the aging ICBMs called the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent, which is scheduled to be completed by 2029. Progressives and anti-war activists oppose the program and have called on the Biden administration to eliminate the land-based nuclear missile system completely. But defense hawks maintain that replacing the missiles is crucial for U.S. nuclear deterrence.

The researchers tasked by the Biden administration with developing ICBM alternatives will seek out a range of perspectives "from former Trump administration officials to NGO disarmament advocates" to discuss "the potential policy benefits and risks with extending the life of the Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), pursuing the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD) program, or other options for consideration regarding the future of the land-based leg," according to the project proposal.

The project was drafted in response to "a request from DoD," according to the proposal. Records indicate that the project is intended to help craft a public relations narrative to bolster the Biden administration's decisions on the ICBM program.

The proposal said the researchers would seek out a variety of opinions, in part to "politically validate that the administration is open to a range of perspectives as is appropriate in a democracy."

The project would also give the administration and its supporters a chance to test-drive responses to its political opponents ahead of any policy announcements on the future of the ICBM program, according to the proposal.

"The main innovation in this project is the interrogative approach: asking hard questions of each alternative, and then building best-case answers to address those hard questions," the proposal states. "This approach can help inform narratives that [the Office of the Secretary of Defense] might use in explaining its decisions about the future of the land-based ICBM."

Debate over the future of the U.S. ICBM program comes as China is rapidly expanding its own nuclear arsenal, building over 200 missile silos and testing hypersonic nuclear delivery systems. Defense hawks in Congress have been focused on updating and modernizing the the United States' ICBM capabilities in light of pressing threats from China, Russia, Iran, and other malign regimes that have prioritized their procurement of advanced missiles. Progressive advocacy groups and members of the Democratic Party's anti-war flank oppose these moves, with sources telling the Free Beacon that the latest Biden administration proposal is an effort to appease the voices.

"If the United States does not modernize the land leg of our nuclear triad, America's nuclear deterrent will erode and Beijing will have little incentive to engage in good-faith strategic arms negotiations," said Brad Bowman, a former Senate national security adviser and now the senior director of the Center on Military and Political Power at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, in a statement to the Free Beacon.

Republicans on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the House Armed Services Committee slammed the proposal, which they described as an attempt by the Biden administration to justify reductions to U.S. nuclear capabilities and appease the Democratic Party's far-left flank.

"At this moment where the Chinese are testing next generation hypersonic weapons, the last thing America needs is more people advocating for the slowing and gutting of our military development," Sen. Ted Cruz (R., Texas) told the Free Beacon.

"America needs to be clear-eyed about the threats from abroad we face and ensure that our military has what they need to confront them," Cruz said. "Instead, the Biden administration wants to pay leftwing activists and organizations to make recommendations further weakening us, which in turn will only further embolden our hostile rivals around the globe."

Rep. Jim Banks (R., Ind.), a member of the House Armed Services Committee, said the contract would be "yet another gift to strengthen Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin at the expense of U.S. security."

"The Biden administration clearly is looking for a way to justify its radical agenda of unilateral disarmament and degrading our essential ballistic missile deterrent," said Banks. "This so-called report is being worked on right at the time that Russia and China are accelerating in their missile development, and China is expanding its nuclear arsenal."

The links between the Carnegie Endowment—which runs a Beijing-based branch at one of China's premier military research universities and has received funding from Chinese state-run influence groups—and the Chinese government came under congressional scrutiny earlier this year after Biden nominated the think tank's president, William Burns, as CIA director.

During the confirmation process, Burns acknowledged that the think tank had accepted between $200,000 and $500,000 from the China-United States Exchange Foundation, a group that congressional investigators have said is part of a foreign influence operation by the Chinese government.

The Carnegie Endowment's board of trustees includes Zhang Yichen, the CEO of a Chinese state-owned private equity fund and a member of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, an advisory group to the Chinese government. Zhang last year contributed between $250,000 and $549,000 to the think tank.

The Carnegie Endowment also set up a Beijing-based partner think tank, called the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy, with China's Tsinghua University. The Australian Strategic Policy Institute, which tracks the national security threat of China's defense research institutes, designated Tsinghua University as "very high risk" due to the school's "high level of defence research and alleged involvement in cyber attacks."

Acton, one of the Carnegie researchers involved in the project, has downplayed China's nuclear expansion. In July, following reports that Beijing had started rapidly building nuclear missile bases, he penned a Washington Post column titled "Don't panic about China's new nuclear capabilities."

Acton proposed that the United States should commit to "limit[ing] its missile defenses" in exchange for reduction commitments from China and argued that it is "actually in the U.S. interest for China to be confident in the survivability of its nuclear deterrent to reduce any pressures on China to use nuclear weapons first in a conflict." The column was later updated with an editor's note: "Since this piece was originally published July 1, additional silos have been discovered at a second new nuclear missile base in China."

Defense hawks counter that reductions in U.S. nuclear capabilities will embolden adversarial countries.

"Those who say we don't need a land leg for our nuclear triad put too much trust in the air and sea legs of our nuclear deterrent, both of which will be increasingly vulnerable to Chinese and Russian attack in the future," said Bowman.

"The essence of deterrence is to create dilemmas for adversary planners that are too difficult to solve, incentivizing them to not conduct the attack in the first place."