The U.S. Air Force has announced its strategy for replacing America's Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles — which have stood alert, awaiting Armageddon, for nearly five decades.
Making nukes is hard. But squeezing another multi-billion-dollar project into the Air Force's already bulging budget is perhaps the bigger challenge.
We're talking about the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent, an effort to replace the stockpile of Minuteman nuclear missiles Boeing built for the Pentagon back in the late 1960s.
This new program has actually been around for years but is only now starting to get some real traction in Washington.
According to a Jan. 23 notice on the government's contracting Website, the Air Force wants to build an entirely new booster stack but keep the existing Minuteman payload assembly, capable of delivering one or multiple independent nuclear warheads.
The proposed missile will occupy renovated Minuteman silos and use the same launch control centers. Those have been in the ground since the '60s.
If Congress funds it, the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent program will deliver an entirely new command-and-control network that connects the president to his nuclear options. This replaces the network of outdated computers that perhaps should be in a museum instead of commanding the most fearsome weapons on Earth.
Recently, a top Air Force general spoke in Washington to lobby for more money to replace almost every strategic weapon system in the Pentagon's nuclear arsenal.
Maj. Gen. Garrett Harencak, assistant chief of staff for strategic deterrence and nuclear integration, said the Air Force has been on a nuclear weapons "procurement holiday" for the past quarter-century. Modernization efforts should be a priority, Harencak said.
"Other countries have not, they did not take that procurement holiday," Harencak claimed on Jan. 20. "It is unfortunate a lot of these bills are all coming due now. We should have been taking care of this, we didn't. That's in the past. I've got to deal with today and the future."
The general's "holiday" statement is a familiar one — and not entirely fair. "If ‘holiday' generally refers to ‘a day of festivity or recreation when no work is done,' then it's been a bad holiday," pointed out Hans Kristensen, a nuclear weapons policy expert with the Federation of American Scientists.
"One can always want more, but the ‘procurement holiday' claim glosses over the busy nuclear modernization and maintenance efforts of the past two decades," Kristensen wrote on Jan. 21.
Krinstensen points to several rounds of nuclear warhead life-extensions by the Energy Department plus the Air Force's fielding of the nuclear-armed B-2 stealth bomber and the introduction of the Navy's Ohio-class missile submarines in the 1990s.
The government spent $8 billion upgrading the current Minuteman system in the 2000s while the Navy fielded its new Trident II D5 missile in the Pacific. Advanced command-and-control satellites boosted into orbit and the bomber force received several new features.
So maybe it's not accurate to claim America has neglected its nuclear forces. Still, the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent has arrived at the back of a long, long queue for funding — and it's not certain whether the next-generation ICBM project will attract kick-starter money in the next budget.
The Air Force is simultaneously seeking funds to buy new bombers worth $550 million each, plus a new cruise missile and secondhand Army UH-60 helicopters to replace the old UH-1s that fly security missions around missile fields. The B-52 also needs a new radar and new engines.
"In truth, none can wait," Brig. Gen. Ferdinand Stoss, Air Force Global Strike Command's top planning and requirements official, wrote in an email in December. "Therefore, we are developing strategies to modernize each based on operational risk and program maturity."
These "priorities" must compete with efforts to modernize conventional forces with, among other things, new satellites and the over-budget F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. Air Force officials want to retire older, inexpensive planes such as the A-10 in order to free up cash for F-35s, but Congress has blocked the moves.
As of Friday, the Minuteman replacement program is in the "market research" phase. Defense firms are keen to offer their support, considering the billions of dollars and decades of maintenance work on the line for whichever contractors the Air Force selects for the program.
In fact, work on the new missile is already underway. Three firms have secured small contracts to begin designing new guidance systems. Contracts to help design the other components should be forthcoming as the GBSD program matures.
The Air Force Nuclear Weapons Center's ICBM division at Hill Air Force Base in Utah is directing the missile work. The focal point for industry is Falcon Hill, an aerospace research park located alongside the base.
Next month, Falcon Hill will host a briefing between the Air Force and industry to outline the main performance characteristics of the proposed missile system. By December, the Pentagon's top acquisition office should make a decision whether to move the project to the technology-maturation phase.
If Falcon Hill does get the green light, work will ramp up almost immediately. It would be the flying branch's first new ICBM project since the ironically-named Peacekeeper program. The Peacekeeper, capable of delivering 10 nuclear warheads to anywhere on Earth, retired from service in 2005.
In 2009, Pres. Barack Obama ordered that the Minuteman, capable of delivering up to three warheads, remain operational through 2030.
To maintain and upgrade the Minuteman while simultaneously preparing for the introduction of the replacement missile, the Air Force is rejigging its ICBM contractor arrangements.
The new ICBM world order, called the Future ICBM Sustainment and Acquisition Construct, does away with the previous prime contractor model, where one company reigned supreme and everybody else was a subcontractor.
The contract arrangement has built-in flexibility so the Air Force can shrink and grow its Minuteman and Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent teams as needed, without having to repeatedly go through the source-selection process.
The Air Force will centrally manage the Minuteman and GBSD projects, and in 2013 hired BAE Systems to assist, ending an existing prime contract that Northrop Grumman had held since 1997.
It's not all bad news for Northrop, though. On Jan. 14, the company secured a spot on the team by winning a five-year deal worth up to $1 billion to support the Air Force's ICBM ground infrastructure, consisting of 450 silos, 45 launch control centers, and dozens of test sites spread across 32,000 square miles and five states.
On Jan. 8, Boeing secured a FISAC contract that extends through 2023 to maintain the guidance subsystem. Last June, Lockheed Martin won the FISAC reentry vehicle contract. A final contract to manage the rocket booster stack is due later this year.
These awards are important for each contractors' current and future involvement in the ICBM business, according to Peggy Morse, Boeing's vice president of directed energy and strategic systems.
"It's very important for the government that anything that's done on GBSD is going to be evolutionary from what we have today, and in some cases has to be backward compatible," Morse said in a Jan. 14 interview. "From our point of view, winning this business was extremely important to keep our finger in the game."
Harencak said during his speech that the government's position is to work toward a world free of nuclear weapons. But until that "happy day" comes, he said, the Air Force cannot fall behind on nuclear modernization.
"It's not going to be inexpensive, but it's also not unaffordable," Harencak said. "It's something we have to do to protect our nation."
In reality, the cost will be enormous. This week, the Congressional Budget Office estimated the government's planned nuclear weapons spending through 2024 at $348 billion. Spending on the ICBM force will total more than $26 billion over the next decade, the budget office found.
Those figures represent the just the "tip of the iceberg," one Washington observer said.
"The big costs for recapitalizing and rebuilding the arsenal aren't scheduled to hit the balance sheets until the early- and mid-2020s," Kingston Reif, a nuclear weapons policy expert at the Arms Control Association, said in a Jan. 23 interview. "We're still only seeing a small slice of the planned cost."
On Jan. 1, the State Department reported that during 2014 the U.S. had 794 deployed land- and sea-based ballistic missiles and heavy bombers. There were 1,642 deployed nuclear warheads.
Russia, by contrast, had 528 deployed nuclear "delivery vehicles" and 1,643 warheads.
America's nuclear weapons stockpile in 2014, accounting for deployed and non-deployed assets, included 698 Minuteman missiles, 56 Peacekeeper missiles, and 411 Trident II missiles. There were 20 nuclear-capable B-2 bombers and 89 nuclear-capable B-52 bombers, according to the report.
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