JUST IN: Survey Finds Overwhelming Public Support for Spending on Nuclear Deterrence

By Mikayla Easley
GBSD concept art

Northrop Grumman concept

Most Americans support revamping the United States’ aging nuclear triad — which is made up of land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles, long-range bombers and ballistic missile submarines — with more modern capabilities, according to a new survey released Sep. 16.

Researchers found that the broader public agrees that Washington should prioritize nuclear deterrence and modernization, said the study which was commissioned by the Air Force Association’s Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies. Legacy systems are reaching retirement age at the same time over the next decade or so.

The study’s leaders aimed to better understand the American public’s attitude towards issues related to strategic nuclear deterrence. The organization surveyed 2,000 Americans in late August.

The debate surrounding nuclear weapon decisions rarely includes insights from the general American public, and usually focuses on the arms control community and advocates of the modern nuclear triad, said Doug Birkey, executive director of the Mitchell Institute. 

But when given the choice between security and the cost of nuclear deterrence, an overwhelming 81 percent of respondents chose security.

Birkey said Sept. 15 during a meeting with reporters ahead of the public release of the study that he was surprised at the overwhelming support nuclear deterrence had in the public, despite its high cost.

“We bent over backwards to try to be really impartial on this,” he said. “I was concerned that when people were going to look at this, they would say, ‘You had to juice these numbers. There’s no way they could be this overwhelmingly one-sided.’ And yet that was kind of it.”

The survey also asked respondents about their opinions on modernization. After sharing basic information about the current lifespan of the Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile, 54 percent of respondents said the United States should replace ICBMs with a more modern system.

When given further context about the growth and modernization of nuclear weapon systems in China and Russia in later questions — including satellite images of 100 new missile silos being built by Beijing — the survey found that support for ICBM replacement increased to two-thirds of respondents.

“The American public just doesn’t know a lot about this stuff,” said Matt George, partner and head of research at Seven Letter, a strategic communications firm that worked with the Mitchell Institute on the report. “Maybe that’s good, maybe that’s bad, but what is pretty apparent is that with information, they can make some informed decisions and that they come to conclusions.”

The survey also asked how much more secure respondents would feel if the United States replaced “outdated ground-based nuclear ICBMs” with modern technology. Of those polled, 80 percent agreed that they would feel safer.

The most likely replacement for the Minuteman III missiles and supporting systems — which first became operational in the 1970s — is the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent, or GBSD. Northrop Grumman received a $13.3 billion contract with the Pentagon in September 2020 for the effort. Air Force officials have said the modernized system will have increased accuracy, extended range and improved reliability.

The study found that Americans are more willing to appropriate funding to modernizing ICBMs than new, non-nuclear weapons and equipment.

While the survey informed participants that nuclear deterrence encompassed 5 percent of the Pentagon’s defense budget, it did not include the GBSD’s $300 billion-plus price tag.

Cost estimates for GBSD are close to $100 billion for acquisition and $264 billion over its lifetime, which is set to run into the mid-2070s. It is set to build 400 missiles that will be operating in the 2030s. President Joe Biden’s fiscal year 2022 budget request included $2.6 billion for the project.

— Additional reporting by Meredith Roaten

Topics: Strategic Weapons

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