Next-gen ICBM program survives defunding attempt in House panel

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WASHINGTON ― The House Armed Services Committee on Wednesday shot down a plan to slash funding for the Air Force’s Ground Based Strategic Deterrent program. The vote was a bipartisan 44-12.

The proposal was to transfer $1 billion to a pandemic preparedness fund from the next-generation intercontinental ballistic missile effort, for which Northrop Grumman is the sole competitor. Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., sponsored it. Though HASC Chairman Adam Smith, D-Wash., supported it, most of the committee’s Democrats did not.

“The United States does not need to be modernizing the ICBMs,” Khanna said, citing experts who see the sea- and air-based legs of the nuclear triad as sufficient. “If there is an accidental launch of an ICBM, you can’t take it back. On the other hand, you can call a submarine back, you can call an aerial bomber back.”

The language would likely have been a sticking point in negotiations with the GOP-controlled Senate Armed Services Committee. The president requested $1.5 billion for the GBSD program for fiscal 2021.

For the most part, fights over nuclear weapons reductions were left out by Democratic leaders anxious to avoid last year’s bruising partisan fights. Those fights may yet surface when members offer amendments on the House floor.

“I’ve disagreed with it, but I’m putting all of that aside for the moment,” Smith said of the president’s nuclear plans. “We had that debate last year. It came out the way it came out. It’s not going to change this year.”

HASC Republicans argued that cutting the GBSD program would undermine America’s nuclear deterrent as Russia and China beef up their arsenals. They’ve also said the nation has dedicated sufficient resources to respond to COVID-19.

“This amendment helps America’s adversaries,” said Liz Cheney, R-Wyo.

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The Air Force is set to grant an award for the GBSD by the end of September. Northrop is expected to win an estimated $85 billion to design and build the missile ― after Boeing declined to move forward following Northrop’s acquisition of solid-fuel rocket motor-maker Orbital ATK.

GBSD is set to replace the Minuteman III ICBMs in the mid-2020s. The Pentagon’s top acquisition official, Ellen Lord, has said there is “no margin” to do another service life extension for the Minuteman III, which was fielded in the 1960s and has gone through only minimal upgrades over its 50 years of use.

An amendment that would have ordered a service life extension study for the Minuteman III failed on a voice vote. In addition, a proposal to delay the president’s exit from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, from Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, was defeated by voice vote.

An earlier version of this story erroneously said a vote on the Minuteman III service life extension study passed. This story has been updated to reflect that the vote failed.

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