Billings Gazette: Tester discusses defense priorities ahead of Biden budget request

by Tom Lutey

The Cold War, which brought intercontinental ballistic missiles to the Montana plains, is over, but the need for the nuclear triad isn’t, said U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, now chairman of a key defense budget subcommittee.

Tester, who became chairman of the Senate Appropriations Defense Subcommittee in February, told Lee Montana Newspapers on Tuesday the ground-based missile defense system remains a relevant, critical deterrent. Roughly 95% of Department of Defense funding passes through the subcommittee, which reviews about $700 billion a year in defense spending.

“We have enough of them that it occupies our adversaries in a big, big way. And then if you add the submarine component and the Air Force bomber component, it’s formidable,” Tester said. “I think if you start sawing off legs of that triad, I think you’re asking for trouble. They’ve been effective for 60 years and they’ll continue to be effective moving forward, but we need to make sure they meet 21st century standards and that’s where the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent comes in. Those upgrades are really very important.”

That Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent is a Northrop Grumman upgrade that means improvements to silos, rockets, electronics and warheads. It is a massive project, expected to cost $264 billion over time according the Department of Defense disclosures in 2020. The GBSD replaces the nation’s 400 Minuteman III missiles, which are spread across Montana, Nebraska and North Dakota.

Malmstrom Air Force Base, home to the 341st Missile Wing, is one of three U.S. bases that maintains and operates Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles. Malmstrom is an anchor of the Great Falls economy.

How the ground-based system plays into President Joe Biden’s defense budget remains to be seen. The president’s requested budget hasn’t been released, but should be out soon. Tester said wrapping up the defense budget likely won’t happen until after August break, though subcommittee hearings on Defense matters have been taking place.

Shortly after becoming chairman, Tester told Bloomberg News he was open to arguments against developing the next-generation ground-based system, and that if there were greater threats that GBSD didn’t deter, he could be swayed. The ICBM’s economic importance to Montana won’t be prioritized over national defense, Tester told Bloomberg.

A small group of House Democrats have twice attempted to defund GBSD, but were overwhelmingly rejected by their own party members and Republican lawmakers. The Federation of American Scientists, which argued against nuclear proliferation, has suggested the Air Force refurbish the current Minuteman III system and put the money saved to other purposes.

Tester said his priority as chairman of the committee that gets first crack at the defense budget is making sure the nation is prepared for all threats.

“And I think that my priorities personally as chairman of this committee is to make sure that we’re doing what we need to do, and in cyber, making the investments so we can deal with cyberattacks. And we frankly, go on the offensive if needed. And we also do, do what we need to do for collections of intelligence, because I think that’s really, really important, critically important,” Tester said.

“And then, you know, short of making sure that our men and women are treated appropriately and we get some of the challenges in our military, like military sexual assault, put to bed, making sure that they’ve got equipment, whether that’s super quiet submarines or airplanes that can’t be spotted on radar, or whatever that might be.

“But trust me, we have been known to fight the last war instead of the next one. And I’m doing my level best as chairman of this committee to make sure that we’re not that.”

There’s a $107 billion a year research component to the defense budget. The spending provides universities with an opportunity for research partnerships, though Tester said the universities and colleges are going to have to collaborate to accommodate defense research needs. Smaller universities like Montana State University and the University of Montana have collaborated with larger out-of-state institutions in the past and will have to do so again.

Last weekend, Tester toured the shipyards where submarines and combat ships are being constructed. He said getting the warships delivered on time needs to be a priority. Tester also toured a Lockheed Martin factory in Marietta, Georgia, where a third of the F-35 fighter jet is manufactured, as well as the C-130J military transport aircraft. The trip ended back in Washington, D.C., with a National Security Agency discussion on Cyber Command.

The last stop came days after the ransomware attack on Colonial Pipeline, which disrupted fuel supply on the East Coast. One takeaway from the visit, Tester said, was that private businesses with critical infrastructure need to share more information government security officials.

“When we’re talking about critical infrastructure, there can’t be any secrets. So, we need to make sure that information is exchanged,” Tester said. “And I can tell you, this isn’t classified information, not all information was exchanged between Colonial and NSA. I’ll tell you, if they’re going to track down who did it and hold them accountable. Every bit of information needs to be exchanged.”