‘Nuclear sponge:’ Why is U.S. spending $100M to upgrade missiles in Montana?
Montana is known to residents as either the “Treasure State” or “The Big Sky State,” but to defense experts, it’s just a “nuclear sponge.”
That’s a technical term that reveals, among other things in a new report published Monday by the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, that while Montana is in line to get part of a new $100 billion land-based missile defense system to replace its Minutemen III weapons, the reasons behind the new system are mired in politics, lobbying and have little do with making America safer.
For example, one of the main purposes of the system is to provide a target for superpowers like Russia or China to strike. The calculus goes something like this: If an enemy wanted to strike at America’s nuclear capabilities, they’d have to launch dozens of missiles of their own at places like Montana to disable them enough to impede a U.S. counterattack. This would mean that Montana and its storehouse of missiles would be among the first area targeted, likely wiping out all human life in Montana, according to the report’s author, Elisabeth Eaves.
In the report, “Why is America getting a new $100 billion nuclear weapon,” Eaves argues that more nuclear weapons are unnecessary as both the United States and Russia have more than 4,000 each. In her report, she quotes a retired Air Force colonel who said after the first couple of nuclear bombs strike, all other ones do is rattle the rubble.
However, Eaves’ article also shows that Montana, Wyoming and North Dakota with their three land-based missile clusters dating back to the Cold-War era are mostly used to “draw fire,” a fancy term that means in the event of nuclear war, Montana would be the “big die” state.
Eaves argues that military and political enemies like North Korea, China and Russia know where the country’s land-based nuclear missiles are located, and in case of an attack, would make them among the first targets. That’s referred to as a “nuclear sponge” — or land that would draw the attack, absorb some of the most horrific hits and take away the fire, at least for a moment, from more populated urban areas.
However, the article also points out that it’s not necessarily military leaders who are clamoring for more nuclear weapons or updating the current stockpile. Instead, it’s politicians and lobbyists who seemed to have driven the new project past the goal line.
For example, spending for missile lobbying has spiked recently. The Bulletin’s article demonstrates that in 1990, the defense aeronautics industry gave $8.4 million in the two-year campaign cycle leading up to the end of the Cold War. Today, that number has peaked, with more than $35 million in the 2020 cycle being almost evenly spread out between Democrats and Republicans.
“The whole idea is obsolete,” Eaves said. “It’s not a very useful weapon. You can’t have a war with nuclear weapons.”
She said that China, arguably America’s most dangerous foe, will likely take its nuclear arsenal from 300 to 600. Meanwhile, other countries are investing in more to counteract climate change or even cybersecurity.
Former Defense Secretary William J. Perry wrote in 2016 that America doesn’t need more land-based nuclear weapons.
“(They) will crowd out the funding needed to sustain the competitive edge of our conventional forces and to build the capabilities needed to deal with terrorism and cyber attacks,” he said.
“Meanwhile, having the nuclear weapons poses some risk,” Eaves said.
For example, having land-based, stationary defense systems means that they would become targets for terrorism, prone to accidents and cyber-hacking.
Nevertheless, several attempts by Congress and different presidents to reduce the number of missiles are only met with bipartisan resistance from members of the “Missile Caucus,” namely politicians from North Dakota, Wyoming and Montana.
Eaves spoke to local politicians, farmers and leaders who see the missile installation at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Great Falls as key to their economic prosperity.
“It has more power than just the military or the defense contractors,” Eaves said. “I understand that the person in Great Falls wants a well-paying job as an electrician or a contractor because of what refurbishment would mean. It goes beyond just the military aspect.”
Eaves reports that one-third of the regional economy is attributed to Malmstrom, with another third being made up of agriculture. Take away the missiles from Malmstrom, and it’ll likely decimate the economy.
“Malmstrom brings a diversification into our community that we wouldn’t have otherwise,” said Cascade County Commissioner Joe Briggs. “If you look around Great Falls, we’ve got amenities that cities twice our size don’t have. A symphony.”
Eaves interviewed several people in Cascade County and several former missileers, the term given to those who operate in the subterranean silos.
“The town treated the base almost like a cargo cult object, in that it fell from the sky and brought great prosperity,” said former missileer Damon Bosetti, who worked in Great Falls from 2006 to 2010.
Ultimately, Eaves concludes, if America is serious about reducing the number of nuclear weapons, it’s going to have to pair the idea with some type of economic support for the very rural areas like Cheyenne, Wyoming, Minot, North Dakota and Great Falls, Montana.
“What happens if you put $100 billion into healthcare instead of a not very useful missile program?” Eaves said.
“In our life, will we see no land-based nuclear options? I’m not so sure,” Eaves said. “But we should be more worried about the Yellowstone Supervolcano because we can’t control it, but we can control how many nuclear weapons we have.”
This story originally appeared online at the Daily Montanan and is republished here by permission.