Minuteman III launch facility at Minot AFB, North Dakota
The nation’s top three military contractors will compete for a multi-billion dollar, decades-long program to replace the Air Force’s fleet of Minuteman III nuclear missiles and to modernize its command-and-control systems.
The service pre-selected the three competitors — Boeing, Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin. A request for proposals is expected by the end of this summer. Two of those three will be selected for a technology maturation and risk reduction phase. The goal is to deliver the first batch of new missiles by 2029, according to Air Force documents.
Chief of Staff of the Air Force Gen. David Goldfein, said: “Despite numerous upgrades to Minuteman III since it was first deployed in 1970, significant obsolescence and 26 sustainment challenges require development of a follow-on ICBM capability.”
The ground-based strategic deterrence (GBSD) program “will resolve [Minuteman III] sustainment and aging issues, reduce total life-cycle costs and extend the U.S.’s ICBM capability out to 2075,” he said in written responses to the Senate Armed Services Committee prior to his confirmation hearing.
The program is expected to cost $62 billion from 2015 through fiscal year 2044, the Congressional Research Service reported. That breaks down to about $14 billion for upgrades to command-and-control systems and launch centers, and $48.5 billion for new missiles.
All three competitors made a case for being the best contractor for the job.
John Karas, vice president of the ground-based strategic deterrent program at Lockheed Martin, said his company has a long track record of success in engineering, evolving and sustaining ballistic missile systems.
“We bring vast expertise to the design, development and fielding of the Air Force’s and the Navy’s next-generation strategic missile weapon systems, as well as the nation’s missile defense systems. We are uniquely qualified to offer the government the most affordable, low-risk GBSD solution that meets all mission requirements,” he said in an email.
Randy Belote, Northrop Grumman vice president of strategic communications, said the program aligns well with the company’s core capabilities.
“Northrop Grumman has been a U.S. Air Force intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) mission partner for nearly 60 years. …The company has strong systems engineering skills; a track record for developing some of the most complex and innovative systems in the world; and a highly skilled, committed and innovative workforce that includes the next generation of missileers.”
Both companies declined to make executives available for interviews pending the release of the RFP.
Boeing executives, however, expanded on its qualifications for the program, in April at the Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, Colorado. The company has served as the ICBM prime contractor for more than 50 years. Craig Cooning, president of network and space systems at Boeing, said with the long-range bomber under development and recent upgrades for the sea-based Trident missile program, Minuteman III would be the oldest part of the nuclear triad.
There have been some upgrades to the missiles since the 1970s, but other components have not been touched. “If you look at the launch control centers, it’s like going back in time literally 50 years,” Cooning said.
The Air Force, meanwhile, is dealing with an aging fleet of Minuteman III missiles that will have to be maintained until the new system is in place. They were deployed in the 1970s with a 10-year lifecycle expectancy, but are now in their 40th year.
Alex Lopez, vice president for global sales and marketing for Boeing’s network and space systems, said the Air Force has committed to replacing the flight systems on the missiles and the ground-based command-and-control systems, as well as carrying out cybersecurity upgrades.
The Air Force wants to refresh the technologies beginning in the 2020 timeframe, Lopez said.
“Maintainability is a big deal,” said Cooning. If one fix to an antiquated system costs $1 million per missile, that begins to add up with some 450 Minuteman IIIs in the arsenal.
The Air Force in its studies has concluded that these technology refreshes will cost less than simply trying to maintain some of the 1970s subsystems, said Lopez. Cooning added: “Lowering those [operations and maintenance] costs overall is going to be vital to the future of this program.”
As for the follow-on missiles, Lopez said the key will be making a new architecture that is “flexible, effective and affordable.”
Lockheed’s Karas agreed.
“Our grandchildren’s generation will be working on GBSD. That’s why this program has to be affordable throughout development and production, and it has to remain affordable through operations and sustainment for decades to come. We’re putting together a proposal with the future in mind and leveraging smart technology investments over the entire GBSD lifecycle,” he said.
In a report looking at outdated federal information technology programs, the Government Accountability Office in May provided a case study focusing on the aging nuclear missile command-and-control system.
Development of the Air Force’s Strategic Automated Command and Control System, which is needed to send and receive emergency action messages to ICBM personnel and other nuclear forces, began in 1963. The 53-year-old system is still being used today. It runs on an IBM Series/1 Computer — a 1970s computing system — and uses 8-inch floppy disks.
“Replacement parts for the system are difficult to find because they are now obsolete,” said the report, “Information Technology: Federal Agencies Need to Address Aging Legacy Systems.”
The software was written in assembly language code. Programs written in this language are much more difficult to write and maintain than others, and typically run only on the make of computer for which they are originally developed, it added.
Work on replacing the system is scheduled to begin by the end of fiscal year 2017, with completion by 2020 at the cost of $60 million, the Defense Department said in its response to the report.
Amy F. Woolf, specialist in nuclear weapons policy at the Congressional Research Service, wrote in a March report about nuclear weapon platform modernization programs that the Air Force intends to replace and upgrade rocket motors, guidance systems and other components, so that they can remain in the force through 2030.
The U.S. land-based ballistic missile force currently consists of 440 Minuteman III ICBMs, each deployed with one warhead. The fleet will decline to 400 deployed missiles, while 450 silos will be retained to meet the terms of the New START Treaty. Treaty reductions are still ongoing with work due to be completed by Feb. 5, 2018.
The U.S. Minuteman III ICBMs are located at three Air Force bases — F.E. Warren AFB in Wyoming, Malmstrom AFB in Montana, and Minot AFB in North Dakota. Each base houses 150 missile silos.
The Air Force deactivated the missiles attached to Malmstrom’s 564th Missile Squadron, which was known as the “odd squad,” the CRS report said.
It was known as such because its launch control facilities for these missiles were built and installed by General Electric, while all other Minuteman launch control facilities were built by Boeing; as a result, these missiles used a different communications and launch control system than the other Minuteman missiles.
The 50 non-deployed missiles that were taken from Malmstrom are now being used for launch tests, and must be included in any modernization programs, CRS reported.
One example of how costly it is to modernize the Minuteman III can be found in the fuze modernization program, which will replace the current MK21 fuze to “meet warfighter requirements and maintain current capability through 2030.” This program is needed because the current fuzes have long exceeded their original 10-year life span and U.S. Strategic Command does not have enough of them to meet its requirements.
For this upgrade alone, the Air Force received $58 million in fiscal year 2015 and $142 million in 2016. It has requested $190 million for 2017. The budget documents indicate that funding will continue to exceed $150 million per year through 2020, with a total program cost of $1.2 billion, CRS reported.
The Air Force has also done some preliminary work on the Minuteman III replacement missile through a demonstration-validation, research-and-development program to buy down some risk for the new missile fleet.
Technologies in this program include: ICBM guidance applications, ICBM propulsion applications, reentry vehicle applications, and command-and-control applications. In the area of guidance applications, the Air Force is seeking to “identify, develop, analyze and evaluate advanced strategic guidance technologies, such as a new solid-state guidance system, for the ICBM fleet.”
This new system would increase the accuracy of the ICBM force and allow the missiles to destroy hardened targets with a single warhead, the CRS report said. Multiple warhead missiles were eliminated under New START.
Larry Dickerson, an analyst at Forecast International, said the stakes are high in the program, but all is not lost for the two companies that ultimately aren’t selected as the prime contractor.
“Just because they lose this initial contract doesn’t mean they are shut out forever. They can figure a way to come back in,” he said.
The Air Force is pretty good at spreading the work around so everybody “stays interested,” he added. “Everybody gets a piece of the pie because they don’t want to lose these other players and they don’t want to be too dependent on somebody else.”
There will also be plenty of opportunities for subcontracting, not only for the two runners-up, but other companies as well, he said.
“With industry consolidation, there are only so many companies now who can do this kind of stuff,” he said. Some firms have certain skills sets and others don’t, and just because Boeing has been the incumbent for a half century, doesn’t necessarily give it an advantage. “It helps to have experience in this area, but it depends on whether that institutional knowledge is able to stay around,” he said.
Some companies have hurt themselves under restructuring and have lost institutional memory of these types of programs that date back decades, he said.
Boeing, on the other hand, does have a long history of working with the Air Force on strategic programs, which may help, he said.
Some members of the Senate Armed Services Committee are also keen on the idea of cost savings through cooperation with the Navy on its Trident missile modernization program.
Goldfein said he was committed to the idea of commonality between the Navy and Air Force as they both upgrade their respective nuclear missiles.
“As we field that weapon system, it is actually not just the missile. It is the missile. It is the launch. It is the command and control. It is the entire enterprise approach. The Navy does the same thing when they look at the submarine force. So I think there is synergy there between how the Navy approaches it and how we approach the enterprise that is required to be able to support this mission,” he testified.
The Air Force plan has some critics.
Kingston Reif, director for disarmament and threat reduction policy at the Arms Control Association in Washington, D.C., said the decision to build a new ground based strategic deterrent missile could be postponed for up to a decade. There have been — and will be — so many upgrades to the Minuteman III that it is basically a new missile.
Upgrades to launch control centers and the command-and-control systems are separate budget items that will cost about $7 billion each. The Air Force has invested most of its resources over the past decades into upgrading the missiles, and neglected the ground stations. The Air Force could instead proceed with these upgrades, while modernizing the Minuteman IIIs in place, he said.
The budget bow wave expected in the 2020s — when the Defense Department will be forced to pay for Ohio-class submarines, the B-21 bomber and myriad other conventional weapon modernization programs — may force a postponement decision, he said.
Todd Harrison, senior fellow and director of defense budget and analysis at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told reporters in January that replacing the missiles was “early to need,” and postponing the program by five years could save $2 billion per year.
The Air Force argues that its stock of 50 test launch missiles will be depleted by 2030, and if there is no new missile, it will have to dip into its deployed stock of 400. The association’s stance is that 400 missiles are more than what’s needed, although Reif declined to give an ideal number. New START expires in 2021, he added. It could be extended by five years if the United States and Russia agrees, or it could be renegotiated with lower missile numbers.
The service has also said it wants improvements to the missile, although it has not stated publicly what it wants. If one goal is to improve accuracy, then why not modernize the Minuteman III’s flight control system? Reif asked.
“Given the enormous and likely unexecutable costs of the current plan, it makes sense to think about how to sensibly reshape and rescale the current path we’re on. It would still leave us with an incredibly devastating deterrent,” Reif said.
Photos: Air Force