By Elizabeth Eaves
America is building a new weapon of mass destruction, a nuclear missile the length of a bowling lane. It will be able to travel some 6,000 miles, carrying a warhead more than 20 times more powerful than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. It will be able to kill hundreds of thousands of people in a single shot.
The US Air Force plans to order more than 600 of them.
On September 8, the Air Force gave the defense company Northrop Grumman an initial contract of $13.3 billion to begin engineering and manufacturing the missile, but that will be just a fraction of the total bill. Based on a Pentagon report cited by the Arms Control Association Association and Bloomberg News, the government will spend roughly $100 billion to build the weapon, which will be ready to use around 2029.
To put that price tag in perspective, $100 billion could pay 1.24 million elementary school teacher salaries for a year, provide 2.84 million four-year university scholarships, or cover 3.3 million hospital stays for covid-19 patients. It’s enough to build a massive mechanical wall to protect New York City from sea level rise. It’s enough to get to Mars.
Deterrence is the main argument for having a nuclear arsenal at all. But America’s land-based missiles have another strategic purpose all their own. Housed in permanent silos spread across America’s high plains, they are intended to draw fire to the region in the event of a nuclear war, forcing Russia to use up a lot of atomic ammunition on a sparsely populated area. If that happened, and all three wings were destroyed, the attack would still kill more than 10 million people and turn the area into a charred wasteland, unfarmable and uninhabitable for centuries to come.
The GBSD’s detractors include long-time peace activists, as you’d expect. But many of the missile’s critics are former military leaders, and their criticism has to do with those immovable silos. Relative to nuclear missiles on submarines, which can slink around undetected, and nuclear bombs on airplanes—the two other legs of the nuclear triad, in defense jargon—America’s land-based nuclear missiles are easy marks.