Scientists say the GBSD project is outdated and the result of lobbying rather than a clear sense of what it will achieve The GBSD nuclear missile would replace the Minuteman III, pictured, but questions have been raised about its viability in the event of a conflict with Russia. Photograph: Clayton Wear/US Air Force / AFP via Getty Images The US is building a new $100bn nuclear missile based on a set of flawed and outdated assumptions, a new report by the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) will say. The report, due to be published next week, will argue the planned ground-based strategic deterrent (GBSD) is being driven by intense industry lobbying and politicians from states that will benefit most from it economically, rather than a clear assessment of the purpose of the new intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). “It is becoming increasingly clear that there has not been a serious consideration of what role these cold war-era weapons are supposed to play in a post-cold war security environment,” the FAS report, titled Siloed Thinking, will say. According to the FAS, a non-partisan thinktank, the US Air Force price tag for the new GBSD was deliberately framed in such a way as to appear slightly less than the cost of extending the life of the missile it would be replacing, the Minuteman III. An independent assessment by the Rand corporation at about the same time, suggested the cost of a totally new weapon could cost two to three times more. An effort by Congress to mandate an independent study on the comparative costs was blocked in 2019 with the help of the industry lobby. The current estimate is that the basic acquisition costs of the GBSD will be $100bn, while the total cost of building, operating and maintaining it over its projected lifespan to 2075 is projected as $264bn. The report is being published as the Biden administration is preparing its first defence budget which may reveal its intentions towards the GBSD, which is in its early stages. In September 2020, Northrop Grumman was awarded an uncontested bid for the $13.3bn engineering, manufacturing and development phase of the project, just over a year after its only rival, Boeing, pulled out of the race, complaining of a rigged competition. It said Northrop Grumman’s purchase of one of the two companies in the US making solid fuel rocket motors gave it an unfair advantage. There are currently 400 Minuteman missiles spread over five states: Colorado, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota and Wyoming. Many arms control advocates argue that rather than being replaced, they should be phased out entirely on grounds of their vulnerability and consequent instability. A US president would have less than half an hour to decide whether to use the missiles in the event of a surprise attack from Russia (the only country with an arsenal big enough to carry out such an attack), or risk losing them altogether to incoming enemy missiles. The decision would have to be made on the basis of early warning systems, which could potentially be faulty or hacked. “Deciding to launch US ICBMs under these conditions would be the most impactful decision in human history,” the report said. “No matter how competent the president is, it is unfathomable that a single individual would be able to make a rational decision under these extraordinary circumstances, especially given the irrationality of the system itself and likelihood of a false alarm.” ICBM sceptics, who include former secretaries of defence and military commanders, say US should rely instead on its nuclear bombers and submarine-launched missiles, the other two legs of the US nuclear triad, which could be used in a retaliatory strike if a nuclear attack is confirmed. Supporters of the GBSD argue against greater reliance on the sea-launched Trident missiles, which they say will be hostage to advances in anti-submarine warfare. “It doesn’t make sense to rely over the long term on the fact that the seas will forever be opaque,” Tim Morrison, a former White House adviser to Donald Trump on Russia and nuclear weapons, now at the Hudson Institute. “Our adversaries understand how much of our deterrence is based on our submarines and we can bet that they are seeking to make those submarines vulnerable. I see no reason why the US would put more eggs in that basket by eliminating the cheapest, most responsive leg of our triad.” The FAS report will argue the opposite – that the survivability of the US submarine force, which carries 55% of the total nuclear arsenal, “is unlikely to change, even decades into the future”. Some critics argue for a pause in the GBSD build-up, delaying the scheduled boost in funding while the new administration conducts a nuclear posture review. While a pause is possible, the Biden administration is not expected to rethink the triad, which has been US nuclear orthodoxy since early in the cold war. “I think they are going to make the wrong decision,” former defence secretary William Perry told the Guardian. “These arguments in favour of maintaining the triad have been so ground into us through the years it’s very unlikely they will find a way of rising above that.” A study published by the Centre for International Policy on Tuesday said Northrop Grumman and its top subcontractors spent over $119m on lobbying in 2019 and 2020 alone and employed a total of 410 lobbyists including many former officials. The rising military power of China is being increasingly cited by GBSD supporters as a rationale for building the new weapon. When Democratic congressman Ro Khanna suggested an amendment last July for using $1bn of GBSD seed money to help combat the Covid pandemic, Republican Liz Cheney, whose home state of Wyoming hosts the Minuteman complex at the Warren air force base, came close to accusing him of being a Chinese stooge. “I don’t think the Chinese government, frankly, could imagine in their wildest dreams that they would have been able to get a member of the US Congress to propose, in response to the pandemic, that we ought to cut a billion dollars out of our nuclear forces,” Cheney said. The FAS currently estimates the Chinese arsenal at 320 warheads, compared to the 3,800 the US has deployed and in the reserve stockpile. The Siloed Thinking report will argue that America’s ICBMs are irrelevant to deterring China because any launch from the Great Plains and over the Arctic could be interpreted by Moscow as an attack on Russia and would therefore risk widening an already catastrophic conflict. “Overall, the Air Force’s … recommendation to pursue a brand-new missile was based upon a series of flawed assumptions about how GBSD would address perceived capability gaps, maintain the health of the large solid rocket motor industrial base … and – most importantly – be cheaper than the cost of a Minuteman life-extension,” the Siloed Thinking report will say. “In hindsight, and upon further scrutiny, all of these assumptions appear to have either been exaggerated or de-prioritized,” the report will conclude, calling for a thorough re-evaluation.