The United States military is expected to spend between $4 billion and $5 billion over the next 10 to 20 years in Cheyenne to modernize F.E. Warren Air Force Base’s intercontinental ballistic missiles system. That kind of money would be significant anywhere, but especially so in Cheyenne where it could more than quadruple the typical amount of construction spending in the city.
It’s good news to locals. Dale Steenbergen, president of the Greater Cheyenne Chamber of Commerce described it as “huge dollars.”
But the local economic benefit comes as just one small piece of a project meant to overhaul the country’s nuclear weapons system at a time of rising tensions between the United States and Russia and an increasingly bellicose North Korea, which has nuclear warheads of its own. While Wyoming’s Congressional delegation and some policy makers view it as an overdue step to keep America safe, others see it as a risky gambit that could push the world closer to nuclear war.
Boon for locals
While the Cheyenne dollars will be spent on relatively non-technical upgrades like concrete pours for new missile silos and buildings to house improved communications systems for the ICBM system, they’re part of a roughly $140 billion effort to replace aging Minuteman Missiles.
The missiles, which are armed with nuclear warheads, are part of what is known as the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent, and over the summer the Air Force gave two $359 million contracts to Boeing and Northrop Grumman to develop proposals for replacing the system.
The GBSD changes are in turn part of a larger $1.35 trillion effort to modernize the United States’ nuclear weapons arsenal.
The need to modernize an aging arsenal and upgrade old equipment is not especially controversial. For example, the nuclear-tipped missiles at F.E. Warren are intended to be fired within minutes of an order from the president. Anything but the latest technology hampers that capability. The initial missiles were installed over 40 years ago.
“Our missiles were built in the 1970s,” Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson said in an August statement. “Things just wear out, and it becomes more expensive to maintain them than to replace them.”
Boeing and Northrop Grumman have three years to develop full proposals to upgrade the ICBM program at which point the Air Force will give one of them the contract to build the new system.
That’s when Steenbergen expects the economic benefits to start rolling into Cheyenne. Adding $4 billion to $5 billion to the local economy would be dramatic, he said. Construction starts — the total project value of construction begun in a given year — typically ranges between $132 million to $851 million, according to estimates by Dodge Data and Construct Connect, two of the few firms that collect such information.
He said the chamber of commerce has been in contact with both companies, encouraging them not just to hire local contractors but to consider Cheyenne as a logistics hub for the improvements that will also be made to the nuclear missile bases in Montana and South Dakota.
“We feel like Cheyenne might be a good spot,” Steenbergen said. “We have good rail service, we have interstate highways.”
Northrop Grumman GBSD vice president Carol Erikson confirmed that the company has been in touch with the chamber about the impact of the project on the local community.
Boeing did not respond to a request for comment. The Air Force was unable to provide answers to a list of questions by press time.
As the United States has entered into nuclear non-proliferation treaties and agreements with Russia to reduce the stockpile of nuclear weapons in both countries, weapons development has focused on creating more powerful warheads and delivery systems to compensate for the reduced quantity.
But despite the increased efficiency of the weapons, proposals to improve the ICBM force call for maintaining the current number of missiles: 400. Wyoming’s U.S. House Rep. Liz Cheney successfully inserted an amendment into a defense spending bill in Congress earlier this year that requires the military to maintain at least that many ICBMs, a move that helps maintain F.E. Warren’s important role in Cheyenne’s economy.
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“The amendment to protect the ICBM force smacks partly of parochial politics,” Michael O’Hanlon, an expert on American defense strategy at the Brookings Institution, said in August.
(Cheney said that while F.E. Warren does benefit Cheyenne, her amendment was focused solely on national security interests.)
It was also Cheney’s way of shoring up support of the nuclear triad — land-based missiles, nuclear submarines and bombers — the need for which has been called into question in recent years due to the high cost of upgrades. Some military leaders have suggested that the nation may no longer need ICBMs, or at least not as many, and could instead rely primarily on air and sea forces.
Cheney vehemently disagrees.
“We’ve got to make sure that every leg of the triad is doing the job it’s intended to do,” she said in an interview.
For Cheney, the GBSD program and the greater nuclear weapon modernization program is part of a larger priority to upgrade the entire United States military. Cheney has opposed defense spending caps imposed under federal sequestration and repeatedly emphasized the need to grow the military following what she says was a steady reduction in capability during the Obama administration.
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“The whole world of warfare has changed and is moving in new directions,” she said. “We’ve got do better.”
Cost estimates for the GBSD improvements have varied, and Steenbergen cautioned that Congress will need to appropriate the necessary funds once a proposal is complete.
Sen. John Barrasso, another member of Wyoming’s all-Republican congressional delegation, said that he supported the program. A spokesman for the final member of the delegation, Sen. Mike Enzi, said that Enzi supported the program and had co-authored a white paper last year calling for the program to be fully funded.
“Senator Enzi believes a strong national defense begins with a strong nuclear deterrent and this means a strong ICBM force,” spokesman Max D’Onofrio said in an email.
Despite agreement that dated elements of the ICBM program need upgraded, some experts are concerned that the improvements to the nuclear weapons program in Cheyenne and across the military may spook America’s nuclear adversaries, especially Russia, and risk sparking a nuclear war.
“The point is not about should we modernize or not,” said Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists. “It’s more about what kind of modernization is necessary.”
While he is not opposed to the idea of modernizing America’s nuclear weapons, Kristensen, with the Federation of American Scientists, is concerned that policymakers are not thinking about the goals of the effort. Many of the improvements being made to nuclear weapons may have drastic consequences for how foreign nations perceive intentions of the United States and how the American government itself considers whether to use its nuclear arsenal.
Take one example. Right now, the fuses on warheads loaded onto Minuteman missiles are set to detonate using a relatively blunt calculation related to elevation. Kristensen said that upgraded fuses are being installed on the warheads that are more sophisticated and able to take factors beyond elevation into account, making it far more likely that a warhead destroys its target even if the missile’s trajectory is slightly inaccurate.
Kristensen and two other nuclear analysts wrote an article for the prestigious Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists in March warning that upgrades like the so-called “super-fuze” was heightening the risk of nuclear conflict, especially with Russia, which might worry that the United States was preparing for a preemptive strike.
“I don’t think that the U.S. is planning for that — certainly not in the context of Russia, at all — but it can appear like that to Russia,” Kristensen said. “Modernization programs like this, they shape the perception of Russian policymakers.”
Kristensen wrote in the article that the modernization drive by both the United States and other nuclear-armed countries, including Russia, have raised the risk of an inadvertent nuclear war sparked by paranoia or misunderstanding to levels at least as high as during the Cold War.
That has convinced many, especially on the left, that nuclear war is reemerging as an existential threat to humanity. Noam Chomsky, the prominent intellectual and critic of American foreign policy, cited Kristensen’s article as evidence of this in an interview with The New York Times published over the summer.
“The significance is clear,” Chomsky said. “It means that in a moment of crisis, of which there are all too many, Russian military planners may conclude that lacking a deterrent, the only hope of survival is a first strike — which means the end for all of us.”
But not all analysts are so convinced. Michael May, a professor emeritus at Stanford University’s Center for International Security and cooperation, said in an email that the improvements being made to America’s nuclear-armed missile arsenal have been anticipated by Russia and other U.S. adversaries and is not likely to change the balance of power.
“I don’t find the modernization ‘destabilizing,’” May said. “The word is thrown around whenever some group doesn’t like a new development. The modernization program keeps the balance as it is and doesn’t change incentives on either side; it is mostly needed upkeep and, as needed, replacement of the existing force.”
Cheney, too, finds arguments for exercising restraint when it comes to upgrading the country’s nuclear weapons to fundamentally misunderstand the point of nuclear deterrence. If some see increasing the kill capacity of American nuclear weapons as risking conflict with Russia, Cheney believes weakness — not upgrading the weapons — is more provocative by leaving an opening where foreign powers could see space to attack the United States.
“It’s a flat wrong analysis,” Cheney said. “They’re much more likely to be mistaken about thinking they can take action and not face consequences if they believe our forces no longer have the capability.”
If the tangible benefit of the GBSD program to Cheyenne is relatively straightforward — an economic boost — the project also comes with more abstract benefits and risks.
Steenbergen, with the chamber of commerce, is aware of the risks posed by nuclear war. But he said that living in Cheyenne has given him a new appreciation for how the United States handles its arsenal of weapons.
When he first moved to town, Steenbergen said he was surprised to see nuclear missiles being driven around Cheyenne in military convoys. If Cheney emphasizes the importance of strong nuclear weapons as a deterrent to America’s enemies, Steenbergen said that the weapons being out in the open in Cheyenne shows this theory in action.
“That transparency is just to show the world exactly what we have,” he said. “In order to get rid of our nuclear capability you have to attack the homeland and that is stabilizing for us because people know they cannot take away that threat.”
Then there’s what happens if that deterrent effect is not strong enough.
While economists regularly try to account for the negative side-effects of development, this is much easier to do when calculating traffic congestion that might result from a new convention center than it is when calculating the risk that the billions of dollars being pumped into Cheyenne might also carry a slim risk of nuclear war.
University of Wyoming economics professor Anne Alexander said that the difficulty of this calculation stems from the challenge of predicting the likelihood of nuclear war resulting from improvements to F.E. Warren. It is much easier to measure the positive impact of $5 billion being pumped into Cheyenne’s economy.
Of course, were things to go awry, the cost of those weapons being used would blot out any economic stimulus. Millions could die immediately. Infrastructure would be destroyed. Crops might not be able to grow for hundreds of years. Radioactive fallout could spread across the globe.
“Nuclear Armageddon would be devastatingly expensive,” Alexander said. “It would be more money than there’s ever been on Earth.”