Future ICBM: Industry Predicts ‘Low Risk’ Development
The nation’s top defense contractors are drafting bids in anticipation of an Air Force request for proposals to develop the next generation of nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles.
Based on preliminary guidance given to potential bidders, industry officials said, the Air Force is avoiding the pitfalls of past development programs and has written the requirements for the new missiles with the intent to avoid technological show stoppers.
“I think it’s a low-risk development program,” said Frank McCall, program manager for ground-based strategic deterrent at Boeing Defense, Space and Security. The company is one of three likely contenders — the other two are Lockheed Martin Corp. and Northrop Grumman Corp. — in the upcoming program to design the future ICBM, dubbed “ground based strategic deterrent.” The Air Force plans to acquire 675 missiles to replace the Cold War Minuteman III fleet at a cost of about $62 billion over the next three decades.
The Air Force has been unambiguous about what it wants, which will help minimize unwanted surprises later in the program, McCall said in an interview. “There really isn’t any significant unknown at the start of the program.”
The ICBM is one of the legs of the strategic “triad” — along with the Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines and the B-2 and B-52 bombers — that the United States deploys as weapons of last resort to deter nuclear attacks.
The Air Force expects the future ICBM to be technologically leaps and bounds above the Minuteman. It will have to travel far longer distances so it can reach targets such as North Korea, will require more precise guidance systems and will need to be designed with a flexible architecture so it can be upgraded in future decades. “They’re looking for more capability but they’re also looking for low risk,” McCall said. “I believe they can have both.”
The basic components needed to build the GBSD already exist, he said. “You don’t have to invent a lot of technology to provide more capability in the ICBM force,” McCall added. The propulsion technology is mature and the command-and-control network can be constructed with already developed software and hardware, he said. “It’s a matter of applying existing technology to the problem.”
Unlike other programs that were launched with many unanswered questions about the technology, this one is relatively unadventurous. “In the GBSD, the system we contemplate and the government has specified really doesn’t have any inherent big questions at this stage,” McCall said. “We can architect the missile and expect it to be stable over the course of the development. … It’s similar to other programs we’ve done in the past.”
McCall cautioned that no major weapon project is entirely risk-free, but predicted the future ICBM will not suffer the developmental troubles seen in many Pentagon procurements. The first phase of the program — called “technical maturation risk reduction” — would last about three years.
Contractors so far have been impressed by how the Air Force has communicated its requirements. The defense industry has grown to expect Pentagon solicitations that are vague and imprecise.
Boeing officials were pleased to see that the draft request for proposals “provided a comprehensive, detailed set of requirements and a rationale behind those requirements,” said McCall. “It was as solid a package of requirements as I’ve ever seen for a program at this stage of maturity.”
The Air Force has adopted so-called “model-based systems engineering” for the GBSD program. This is a digital environment made up of analytical models that connect requirements, design, manufacturing and other steps of the procurement process. This approach, industry experts said, helps avoid early mistakes that sometimes can doom a program.
Contractors are still given some “trade space” to submit their unique ideas, said McCall. “They clearly communicated what it is they want, and why they made those decisions. In some cases very prescriptive, in other cases very open. In every case well documented, explaining what the government needs from industry.” For the future ICBM fleet, the Air Force wants newly designed missiles and communications systems but plans to use existing launch facilities. “So there’s no need for industry to think about different ways to house missiles.”
Between now and 2030, the Air Force plans to continue funding upgrades for the Minuteman III. About 450 are deployed in silos. Although Boeing was the original manufacturer of the missile, the Air Force in 1958 took over the management of fleet sustainment and technology integration. BAE Systems is the prime support contractor that is helping write the requirements for the GBSD. The Minuteman sustainment work over the past several decades has been shared by Boeing, Northrop Grumman, Lockheed Martin and Orbital ATK.
Members of Congress have pressed defense officials to study the possibility of sharing technology between the GBSD and the Navy's Trident II submarine-launched missile, which is undergoing a life extension program. Any linkage between the two programs could play in favor of Lockheed Martin, the contractor selected to perform the Trident II upgrades.
McCall said there are technologies across many programs that could be tapped in the ICBM program. “There are opportunities across a wide range of programs to look at equipment and designs.”
Lawmakers also have asked the Air Force to study the potential cost of updating the Minuteman III vis-à-vis acquiring a new missile. The question was raised this month during a House Armed Services subcommittee on strategic forces. Gen. Robin Rand, commander of Air Force Global Strike Command, vigorously shut down that idea.
“I think that is unwise,” Rand told subcommittee Chairman Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Ala. “The Minuteman III now is coming up on its 50th year in service. It's difficult. There are a lot of inefficiencies with manpower, with command and control, with the reliability.” He said extending the life of the Minuteman III for 50 more years would cost $160 billion.
Robert Scher, assistant defense secretary for strategy, plans and capabilities, said the GBSD program would be reviewed by the Defense Acquisition Board in early August and, pending a green light from the DAB, the Air Force would later issue a request for contractor proposals.
“We have money in the budget to go forward with this,” Scher said.
The Pentagon is launching the ICBM replacement effort amid abrewing debate in Washington on whether the nation should be spending $350 billion or more to modernize the nuclear triad.
Arms control groups have urged the Obama administration to slow down or terminate some portions of the nuclear modernization plan as a means to help ease global tensions.
Photo: Air Force