America is building a new weapon of mass destruction, a nuclear missile the length of a bowling lane. It will be able to travel some 6,000 miles, carrying a warhead more than 20 times more powerful than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. It will be able to kill hundreds of thousands of people in a single shot.
The US Air Force plans to order more than 600 of them.
On September 8, the Air Force gave the defense company Northrop Grumman an initial contract of $13.3 billion to begin engineering and manufacturing the missile, but that will be just a fraction of the total bill. Based on a Pentagon report cited by the Arms Control Association Association and Bloomberg News, the government will spend roughly $100 billion to build the weapon, which will be ready to use around 2029.
To put that price tag in perspective, $100 billion could pay 1.24 million elementary school teacher salaries for a year, provide 2.84 million four-year university scholarships, or cover 3.3 million hospital stays for covid-19 patients. It’s enough to build a massive mechanical wall to protect New York City from sea level rise. It’s enough to get to Mars.
One day soon, the Air Force will christen this new war machine with its “popular” name, likely some word that projects goodness and strength, in keeping with past nuclear missiles like the Atlas, Titan, and Peacekeeper. For now, though, the missile goes by the inglorious acronym GBSD, for “ground-based strategic deterrent.” The GBSD is designed to replace the existing fleet of Minuteman III missiles; both are intercontinental ballistic missiles, or ICBMs. Like its predecessors, the GBSD fleet will be lodged in underground silos, widely scattered in three groups known as “wings” across five states. The official purpose of American ICBMs goes beyond responding to nuclear assault. They are also intended to deter such attacks, and serve as targets in case there is one.