What do a new nuclear arms race, Utah politics and a decades-old Oscar-winning film have in common?
In “The Sting,” winner of the Best Picture Academy Award of 1973, a team of seasoned con artists dupe a rich, powerful and arrogant “mark” into blowing a fortune on a phony horse race. It’s a seven-act, complex caper classic of what an elaborate and successful con looks like.
In Act I of our remake-in-progress, “The Players” want to sell you - the U.S. public, Congress and Utah especially - a new missile in an old silo. The players are, of course, the all too familiar military-industrial complex that President Eisenhower warned of – defense industry contractors, lobbyists and think tank hawks and their money. Along for the ride are a Who’s Who of Utah political and business leaders.
Acts II and III, “The Set Up” and “The Tale”, have been going on since the Cold War began. In this version, we “need” a new land-based nuclear missile to replace the aging Minuteman III missiles deployed in silos in the northern plains and overseen from Utah’s Hill Air Force Base. That new missile, the lame-named Ground Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD), rebranded “The Sentinel,” would be developed and tested by Northrup Grumman in Utah and is supported by Utah Sens. Mitt Romney and Mike Lee.
These sales tales include exaggerated fears that the Chinese are threatening our strategic deterrence by building their own version of the GBSD, 100 nuclear missiles deployed in a shell-game configuration eerily reminiscent of the discredited and abandoned mobile MX missile of the 1980′s.
They also make false charges that the Obama and Biden administrations failed to invest in defense, despite their all-in support for nuclear weapons “modernization” and record Defense Department budgets. Biden’s FY 2022 defense budget request included $44.5 billion for new nuclear weapons - 13% higher than Donald Trump’s last defense budget.
No surprise, in Act IV, “The Hook” is the lure of jobs and money to be made. The political establishment in Utah has bought “The Tale” and swallowed “The Hook,” with the Utah Legislature shelling out $40 million in March to accommodate missile production.
“The Sting,” the final act, is when the bill comes due. Of all people, Utahns should know better than to be conned by this shell game.
After all, Utahns went “from guinea pigs to sitting ducks” with the devastating effects of exposures to fallout from atmospheric nuclear testing in the 1950s and 60s. Then, in the early 80s, but for massive opposition, Utah nearly wound up hosting the MX nuclear missile deployment, which the Soviet Union’s nuclear arsenal would surely have targeted first.
We don’t need a provocative and dangerous land-based deterrent. In fact, this “land mode” of deployment was obsolete before Rancher for Peace activist Cecil Garland suggested in a nationally televised debate that the MX missile should be put in the “com-mode.” We should drop the outmoded “Triad” orthodoxy – our aircraft and submarine-based nuclear missiles provide stealthy and flexible deterrence sufficient to ward off catastrophic nuclear war without land-based missiles.
If we can’t just let it go, the life of the current Minuteman III missiles can remain effective for another 15-plus years with a far more reasonable investment while we conclude negotiations with Russia on a New Start Treaty and engage China in new arms control negotiations. It’s past time we stop our recent retreat from international treaties and assume the role of leader in efforts to achieve world peace and nuclear disarmament.
Investing money on weapons we don’t need and can’t use is not “conservative.” It’s bad strategy and bad economics, producing less return on investment and creating fewer jobs per dollar than funding transportation, housing or day care programs. The GBSD is estimated to cost a whopping $264 billion over its 50-year lifespan.
Steve Erickson, Salt Lake City, is a decades-long military watchdog and Utah activist for Downwinders, social justice and peace.