A good return on investment: New report shows Montana senators benefit from defense lobbying

Author: ‘Pork-barrel politics’ influence nuclear program

By: - March 10, 2021 5:31 pm

An unarmed Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile accelerates toward a test range near Guam in 2015 after launching from Vandenberg Air Force Base. The ICBM was the second fired for testing and evaluation purposes in the course of a week, with both Malmstrom and F. E. Warren AFBs sending crews and randomly selected missiles to Vandenberg AFB to launch the missiles in conjunction with the 30th Space Wing and 576th Flight Test Squadron which oversee the launch facilities and operational tests, respectively. (U.S. Air Force photo by Joe Davila)

A new report this week looking at the defense industry and lobbying shows intercontinental ballistic missile contractors directed millions towards politicians and efforts to support a new system, which would be located in Montana, Wyoming and North Dakota.

Those lobbying efforts appear to have largely been effective as the United States plans to replace its Minuteman III fleet of nuclear weapons with a new system that, during its lifespan, will cost more than $264 billion. The ICBMs — with 150 in Montana — make up one of the so-called “legs” of the nuclear triad. The three parts of the nuclear weapons program also include air support and submarine capabilities.

The new report, authored jointly by Center for International Policy and the Arms and Security Program, paint an in-depth look at the lobbying efforts of defense contractors to block proposals to decrease or limit the ICBM program, and support a brand-new system by Northrop Grumman.

The report walks through several different aspects, including the case that is being made for a new system and the cost of building a new fleet of ICBMS, and finally, it argues that investing the estimated $264 billion in a new program takes funding away from more pressing issues, like climate change.

However, the report acknowledges that economies and communities where the bases are located, namely Great Falls, Montana, Minot, N.D., and Cheyenne, Wyoming, will need federal transition assistance and support.

The report also calls on Congress to implement more campaign finance limits, put greater restrictions on lobbyists and adopt new policies regarding nuclear weapons.

The report shows 11 ICBM contractors reported spending $119.7 million on lobbying efforts and had 410 lobbyists working with Congress. Northrop Grumman, the lead contractor that has been awarded the next generation of ICBM projects, spent $25.6 million and had 69 lobbyists. That was second in spending next to Lockheed Martin, which spent just shy of $26 million and had 57 lobbyists.

A look at the “ICBM Coalition,” which includes senators from Montana, Wyoming, North Dakota and Utah, shows more than $1.1 million of contributions to those members in the past eight years. Sen. Jon Tester is second on that list with more than $102,000, and was only surpassed because of Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign. Romney in the same time period hauled in $645,545. Sen. Steve Daines, Montana’s junior senator, pulled in $85,948 — fourth on the list.

Mandy Smithberger, the director of the Straus Military Reform Project and the Center for Defense Information, tracks the lobbying and spending of defense contractors on Congress.

“The scandal is that there is not more scandal,” Smithberger said.

In a statement by Tester’s office in response to the Daily Montanan, the senior Senator who leads the defense appropriations subcommittee said he’s a champion for Montana’s military and touted the success of the ICBM program.

“Ensuring our service members, defense installations, and intelligence agencies have the resources they need to keep us safe is a responsibility I take seriously,” the statement read. “For decades, as our nation’s most effective strategic deterrent, ICBMs and the men and women tasked with their upkeep and operation have played a critical role in keeping us safe. I’ll continue my work to ensure taxpayer dollars are being spent wisely, and with the proper oversight.”

A request for interview or comment sent to Daines’ staff was not returned Wednesday.

Stephen Young, the Senior Washington Representative of the Global Security Program of the Union of Concerned Scientists, said the most stark comparison can be seen in the lobbying efforts. He said the prophecy of former President Dwight D. Eisenhower is coming true as the former general warned against the military industrial complex.

Young said 410 lobbyists and more than $110 million are put toward convincing Congress a new fleet of missiles is needed. Meanwhile, he said he is just one of 10 lobbyists who actively urge lawmakers to change the current policies on ICBMs.

“This is a pretty good (return on investment),” Smithberger said.

Lobbying efforts even at $100 million would represent less than 1/300,000th of the overall lifetime cost of the project.

As a person who monitors lobbying and the “revolving door” of lobbyists, Smithberger said before Congress can truly debate the merits of large weapons systems like the ICBM, something has to be done about the influence peddling.

“In 2004, there was a report and a debate on the ‘revolving door,’” Smithberger said. “Both in size and scope. It was said that (lobbyists) were there for their expertise.”

She said with the explosive growth of lobbyists and their budgets, that report rings hollow. The revolving door, referring to the practice of staffers and politicians who leave government to become higher-paying lobbyists, has only grown.

“They are hired for who they know, not what they know,” Smithberger said. “Almost certainly there’s more going on behind the scenes. This only captures billable hours sorts of stuff, not all the politicking and phone calls that go on without needing to be reported.”

The new report also suggests that reforms should be put into defense contractor lobbying.

“There is a question, though, how constitutional that would be,” Smithberger said.

Federal case law has ruled that money and lobbying represent protected political speech, so it would be questionable if Congress chose to rein itself in, whether such a move would stand up to constitutional scrutiny, especially on a more conservative Supreme Court.

“Right now, the money influences how politicians think. And right now, they’re asking what’s best for the company and not what’s best for the country,” Young said.

Biden on nukes

Young said it’s unlikely there will be any substantial policy change in ground-based defense systems during the Biden administration. He said had Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren won the White House, they would have likely pushed further.

For now, Young said, the debate on Capitol Hill is not whether to discontinue ICBMs, but whether an entire new system is needed or the older Minuteman III missiles can be updated.

“Right now our nuclear arsenal is massively more robust than it needs to be,” Young said.

Young said he’s hoping that a shift toward updating the missiles will give enough time for other reforms, like lobbying limits and plans that demonstrate better economic alternatives to ground-based nuclear warheads.

The report’s lead author, William Hartung, said he was surprised that defense contractor lobbying had so effectively shut down any conversation about the ICBM fleet.

“It should be decided on the merits, not based on pork-barrel politics and special interest lobbying,” Hartung said. “They have blocked any discussion of this at every level. It is the immovable object.”

While eliminating the ICBM program is unlikely, Hartung said, he hopes that a conversation can happen by pausing the debate. Even pausing the project, Hartung said, would be met by strong resistance from Northrop Grumman, who was awarded the sole provider of the new system, along with a $13 billion contract for development from the Trump administration.

He said that some of the research and development on a new system may be lost if the issue takes a pause, but some of the money could go to updating the fleet of current missiles at a much lower cost.

The report outlines a number of political and strategic considerations, including taking the current ICBMs off high alert and adopting a policy of “no first use of nuclear weapons.”

Base redevelopment?

The new reports argues that if America was to reduce, spool down or eliminate the ground-based nuclear missiles that military-based communities, like Great Falls, would need federal economic assistance. However, the report’s authors also contend that redeveloping the economy would be more cost-effective and strategic than investing in a new, redundant missile system.

“For example, the costs of combating COVID is putting pressure on Congress,” Smithberger explained. “There are broader conversations going on now about priorities.”

The group of senators in the ICBM Coalition often refer to the jobs the military sustains and the defense contractors create by building new weapons systems. Conversely, a vote not to support the ICBM program can also leave these same politicians vulnerable to charges that they’re killing jobs. However, the Center for International Policy also examined ways that communities affected by base closures could be helped economically.

Hartung points out that there are many different types of weapons programs and missions in the military, and eliminating the ICBM fleet doesn’t mean shuttering the bases.

Hartung’s report questions Northrop Grumman’s estimate that the ICBM project will create 10,000 jobs at 125 facilities in 32 states.

“The company has not provided documentation of these estimates,” the report said. “And the jobs are likely to be concentrated in a small number of facilities, with other locations receiving a handful of jobs at most.”

The report says that if the Pentagon invested in green manufacturing, the same investment would result in 250,000 jobs — 25 times the number Northrop Grumman estimates. Those estimates were calculated by Brown University’s “Costs of War” project.

Moreover, Hartung points out that the military has already considered the question of what would happen to bases if the ICBM program was eliminated.

“It is possible to develop economic alternatives,” the report said. “The Pentagon’s Office of Economic Adjustment … has written case studies of 35 successful base conversion examples in 19 states that resulted in a total of over 157,000 new civilian jobs after the closure of the facilities — more than twice the number of jobs that existed when the bases were closed.”

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics and data from the United States Pentagon, Malmstrom Air Force base is responsible for 150 missile sites and 4,000 personnel are tied to the missile-related activities. That accounts for about 11 percent of the Great Falls-area labor force.

“There are many options — it’s not just a question of closure or not,” Hartung said. “But, it’s a slippery slope with politicians who seemed unified that they will oppose anything that seems to reduce any part of the program.”

Policy questions

Regardless of the lobbying or the economics, Hartung argues there’s a conversation that must take place about the ICBMs. Known as one of the legs of the nuclear triad, as aircraft and submarine technology has advanced, the vulnerabilities and limitations of the ground-based system become more urgent.

For example, because of the time needed to get missiles airborne, a decision about whether to launch them has to happen sooner. And, once in the air, the nuclear warheads are nearly impossible to recall, greatly increasing the chances of an accidental launch starting a nuclear war.

“Right now, these missiles and the places they’re at are really like sacrificial lambs in a larger strategy,” Hartung said. “It neglects the facts that our submarines, where a lot of nuclear arsenal is housed, are almost impossible to detect, and we’re able to recall our bombers in the air. For ICBMs, there’s no chance of correction.”

Communication systems and the threat of cyberterrorism also increase the vulnerability of the land-based programs.

One other strong argument for keeping the hundreds of land-based missiles is to deter any thought of attack by Russia.

“Really Russia is the only other country that has that many nuclear weapons,” Hartung said.

The land-based missiles are there to draw fire, he said — the “nuclear sponge” theory in which places like Montana, Wyoming and North Dakota would be first targets for an attack in order to take out the silos in the ground. These sparsely populated states would “absorb” the first impact, drawing it away from more populous targets.

Young said that part of the challenge is that because the missiles have been a part of the defense and Montana landscape for so long, people forget or minimize the role.

“For the past 50 years, they’ve been there, and it’s worked, so it should probably just keep on working,” Young said.

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Darrell Ehrlick
Darrell Ehrlick

Darrell Ehrlick is the editor-in-chief of the Daily Montanan, after leading his native state’s largest paper, The Billings Gazette. He is an award-winning journalist, author, historian and teacher, whose career has taken him to North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Utah, and Wyoming. With Darrell at the helm, the Gazette staff took Montana’s top newspaper award six times in seven years. Darrell's books include writing the historical chapters of “Billings Memories” Volumes I-III, and “It Happened in Minnesota.” He has taught journalism at Winona State University and Montana State University-Billings, and has served on the student publications board of the University of Wyoming.

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