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Key Defense Element of Nuclear Triad Becoming Unaffordable

Botched Pentagon program reinforces Americans’ worst fears about the Defense Department.

With President Joe Biden’s defense budgets decreasing, another critical weapons program is becoming unaffordable. Cost management of America’s nuclear triad is particularly vulnerable to intense scrutiny, demanding the tightest cost controls. Unfortunately, the US Air Force’s new intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), under contract with Northrop Grumman, is skyrocketing in price.

Defense Program Cost Overruns Disliked by Taxpayers

Taxpayers dislike nothing more than finding out the Pentagon is wasting their money, especially when programs critical to US national security are found over cost, behind schedule, or not performing. When it comes to those underpinning America’s safety in a perilous world, nuclear deterrence is at the top of the list. So, finding that a significant leg of the triad is now over cost and behind schedule is raising alarm.

“The first test flight for the Sentinel nuclear missile is delayed until 2026, a two-year setback,” The Hill reported:

 “The US Air Force’s new Sentinel intercontinental ballistic missile program is now estimated to cost at least 37% more than the previously projected $96 billion, triggering a formal Pentagon review that will include whether to scale back or terminate the project. Costs for the Sentinel may increase to as much as $162 million per missile when calculated in 2020 dollars, up from $118 million each, according to a new estimate.”

In a recent House Armed Services Committee, Strategic Forces subcommittee on FY2025 Strategic Forces Posture, Rep. John Garamendi (D-CA) expressed the typical criticism of the triad strategy, specifically the ground-launched ICBM leg. “We have the responsibility of aligning strategy with limited money,” Garamendi said, suggesting the $6 billion Sentinel budget is a limping gazelle, which attracts budget-cutting predators.

Scaling back the new ICBM program would only exacerbate the unit cost problem since buying fewer Sentinel missiles would drive the program price up more than current cost overruns. Terminating the program would leave the US nuclear deterrence capability dependent on the half-century-old Minuteman III ground-based nuclear missile capability.

Where Was Cost Planning?

“A Northrop Grumman official on Monday (March 25) attributed the explosive projected cost growth of the US Air Force’s next intercontinental ballistic missile to the service’s design changes, including to the nuclear missile’s silo and connecting cables,” Stephen Losey reported in Defense News. Initial program planning hoped to use the nearly 7,500 miles of existing copper cabling that connects the 450 Minuteman III ICBM silos, and replacing the cabling was not included in the cost estimates or the original contract pricing.

Now, the Air Force has directed the copper to be replaced with fiber optics. That means digging up hundreds of miles of existing cables across remote farmland and property between hundreds of missile facilities.

According to Losey, the original designs for the missiles submitted by Northrop and selected by the Air Force wouldn’t work. It seems the 450 “massive concrete-encased silos from which the missiles would launch” were not usable for the Sentinel. Consequently, all launch silos would have to be significantly modified. If you are thinking, “Let me get this straight, the Air Force awarded the Sentinel contract in 2020 and four years later the Air Force had an epiphany the new missiles won’t work in the old silos,” you would be right. So significant reconstruction of the silos is required.

What has happened to the Sentinel program is egregious, and it can all be placed at the Air Force’s feet. These mistakes jeopardize critical national security capability. It was the Air Force this time, but the other services are just as guilty of such acquisition missteps. This blunder has jeopardized US nuclear deterrence.

The views expressed are those of the author and not of any other affiliate.

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