Nuclear Triad: Pentagon Taking Steps to Modernize Global Strike Weapons

By Jon Harper
An unarmed Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile, a B-2 bomber and the Ohio-class submarine USS Tennessee

Photos: Defense Dept.

As potential adversaries enhance their long-range weapons, the United States is moving forward with plans to bolster its own global strike capabilities. The stakes are high as officials try to keep their programs on time and on budget.

Russia, China and North Korea are modernizing their strategic weapon systems, defense officials and independent analysts have noted. At the same time, tensions are boiling in the Asia-Pacific following Pyongyang’s recent tests of intercontinental ballistic missiles and nuclear warheads that could potentially reach the U.S. homeland.

To bolster deterrence and assure anxious allies, the Air Force has flown long-range bombers such as the B-52 near the Korean Peninsula and conducted an ICBM test without a warhead. The Navy has deployed ballistic missile submarines to the region, and allowed officials from allied nations to tour the USS Pennsylvania while it was docked in Guam.

“A lot of that diplomatically is just a show of force,” Gen. Robin Rand, commander of Air Force Global Strike Command, said during a meeting with reporters at the Air Force Association’s Air, Space and Cyber Conference in National Harbor, Maryland. It signaled that “we’re ready to fight tonight,” he added.

However, the United States’ global strike systems are aging, and the Pentagon is pushing to modernize its arsenal.

The Navy plans to replace its Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines with 12 new Columbia-class boats. Advance procurement funding has already been allocated to the project. The lead vessel is to be procured in fiscal year 2021, and enter service in 2031.

Vice Adm. Terry Benedict, director of Navy strategic systems programs, said industry is enhancing shipbuilding facilities.

“Electric Boat is working very, very hard in creating new infrastructure … to handle the capacity necessary to deliver the Columbia,” he said at a recent nuclear deterrence conference in Washington, D.C. “We can’t do it within the existing footprint.”

The Navy is aiming to reduce technical and schedule risk. That includes building infrastructure to test and validate systems and subsystems.

When the Columbia-class is delivered Navy officials will have high confidence that the new platforms are entering operational service with known reliability and system performance, Benedict said.
However, any disruptions to the program would be problematic, he said.

“There is no slack” in the schedule, he told National Defense. “We’re trying to find ways to intelligently create that [slack] within our integrated master schedule. But … the buffer for when we need it based on the retirement dates for the Ohio, that’s gone.”

The new submarine is the Navy’s top acquisition priority, with a projected program cost of $128 billion. Despite the high price tag, it appears to have strong backing from Congress. The sea-launched ballistic missile platform is expected to take priority when it comes to funding the Pentagon’s nuclear modernization efforts, analysts said.

“Most people agree the SLBMs are kind of … sacrosanct,” said Todd Harrison, director of defense budget analysis at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank. “You’re not going to touch them [with a budgetary ax] because that is the most survivable leg of the triad.”

The Columbia is “very safe” in the Pentagon’s ongoing nuclear posture review, which is expected to wrap up by the end of the year, he said during a briefing with reporters.

Meanwhile, the Air Force has several nuclear modernization programs underway. One is the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent, known as GBSD. It is expected to replace the Minuteman III system that has been in operation for decades.

In August the service awarded technology maturation and risk reduction contracts to Boeing and Northrop Grumman.

“We are not just buying a missile,” said Col. Heath Collins, GBSD program manager at the Air Force Nuclear Weapons Center. “The GBSD program is a full recapitalization of the weapon system.” It will include a new flight system, a new command-and-control system and modernized launch systems, he noted.

To improve their chances of success, service officials have examined the acquisition woes that have plagued other programs.

The program is not looking for “technology miracles,” Collins said. “We want mature technology right at the get-go to be integrated together.” A significant amount of risk reduction work is expected, he added.

Program officials are looking at missile development efforts by the Navy, the space community and the Missile Defense Agency that could be applied to GBSD.
“We will take, beg, borrow, steal any type of technology, people, processes — anything we can” to improve the program, Collins said.

The first major requirements review with the prime contractors for the TMRR phase was slated to be completed by the end of October. “Every requirement that we have on contract we are taking a look at from a cost-capability trade perspective,” Collins said.

The companies will conduct analyses “to make sure that we’re not over-specing the program, making sure we understand and identify what the largest cost drivers are.”

“If there are particular areas [where] we think that with a little bit of relief we could save big time [or] money, we’ll continue to work that through as we finalize the program,” he added.
The preliminary design review is expected to wrap up in 2020.

“We have the opportunity to make decisions in the next couple years that will save billions and billions of dollars over the lifecycle of GBSD,” Collins said.

Defense Department cost estimates for the program have varied widely, from $62 billion to as much as $140 billion.

“It was unusually difficult to estimate the cost of a new ICBM program because there was no recent data to draw upon, and the older historical data was of very questionable quality or was nonexistent,” the Pentagon’s cost assessment and program evaluation office said in its most recent annual report. “This leads to considerable uncertainty and risk in any cost estimate.”


LEFT: Boeing’s Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent concept (Boeing) RIGHT: B-52 Stratofortress (Air Force)


The service plans to eventually deploy 400 new ICBMs. Initial fielding of GBSD is expected by 2029. Additional missiles are to be procured for periodic testing and to have spares.

However, a number of other major Air Force modernization efforts will also be ramping up in the early to mid-2020s, Harrison noted. The F-35 joint strike fighter, B-21 stealth bomber and KC-46 tanker are the service’s top acquisition priorities. Funding for those programs could crowd out spending on GBSD, he said.

“This is going to require a pretty good increase in … their acquisition funding for major modernization programs,” he said. “If they’re not able to increase funding as they planned, they’re going to have to make choices.”

A schedule slippage — due to budget constraints or technical issues — is probably in the cards, he predicted.
If the nuclear posture review calls for cuts to any leg of the triad, it would probably be the ICBMs because they are the least survivable and they don’t contribute to conventional missions, he added.

In addition to pursuing new ground-based weapons, the Air Force is moving to modernize its bomber fleet.

“Our bread and butter in this command is to be able to take off with ordnance with the support of Air Mobility Command and their phenomenal tankers and go a long way and very precisely deliver [weapons] on time, on target,” Rand said.

The service’s B-2 and B-52 bombers are undergoing upgrades and life-extensions so that they can fly for several more decades, he noted.

Rand and other senior leaders hope to be able to re-engine the B-52 to help keep it operational into the 2050s. But finding the money to do it has been a challenge.

Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, was optimistic that the necessary funding would be forthcoming.

“If I have my way, and I think there’s a good chance I will, we’re going to continue to put more money into [the B-52] including new engines, which I know is not a small price tag,” he said.

Hoeven’s home state, North Dakota, hosts B-52s and ICBMs.

The Air Force is also pursuing a next-generation stealth bomber, the B-21.

Rand said he’s “very, very pleased” with the program so far.

“If we do this right… we have an opportunity between the United States Air Force and [prime contractor] Northrop Grumman to make this what I think could be a benchmark acquisition program forour nation,” he said.

“The requirements are tight. … The funds you know are there. So we have the opportunity I think to really march out on this thing,” he added.

The service hopes to learn from the problems that plagued the B-2 stealth bomber program. Production was stopped in the 1990s. Only 21 aircraft were built, and the plane ended up costing about $2 billion each.

The Air Force has put together a team to do a deep dive and assess where things went wrong. But Rand said one lesson is already crystal clear.

“If we’ve learned anything from the B-2 … [being] on time, on cost is really important because we need this capability and we need it in the sufficient numbers,” he said.

“We cannot take our foot off the pedal,” Rand said. “There’s a lot of work to do in the months and years to come.”

The B-21 program has been projected to cost $55 billion to $80 billion. The Air Force hopes to begin fielding the aircraft in the mid-2020s.

The service plans to buy at least 100 bombers, but officials have suggested that more may be needed as the global threat environment becomes more challenging.
Harrison doesn’t expect the dual-mission capable B-21 to suffer from the nuclear posture review. “The size of the bomber force is almost entirely driven by the conventional mission of the bombers. And so the NPR, I think, is highly unlikely to affect that,” he said.

In addition to buying new aircraft, the Air Force wants to acquire next-generation air-launched cruise missiles that could deliver nuclear weapons. The Long Range Stand-Off weapon, known as LRSO, is intended to replace aging legacy systems, which are difficult to maintain.

The Air Force recently awarded technology maturation and risk reduction contracts for LRSO to Lockheed Martin and Raytheon.

Air Force leaders have argued that a new cruise missile is needed to keep B-52s viable as nuclear bombers. The aircraft, which is not stealthy, would have difficulty penetrating sophisticated enemy air defenses, they said.

Legacy cruise missiles are also vulnerable to adversaries’ counter-air capabilities, according to Air Force Gen. John Hyten, commander of U.S. Strategic Command.

“The air-launched cruise missile that was built 40 years ago for a Soviet threat is not the air-launched cruise missile that we need today,” he said during remarks at the Hudson Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank.

Although survivability wouldn’t be as much of a concern for the stealthy B-21, the aircraft would still benefit from the LRSO because it would give the planes the ability to attack multiple targets at once rather than having to fly over each individual target to drop gravity bombs, Hyten noted.

The Air Force wants to procure about 1,100 cruise missiles. The projected cost of the program is about $10 billion, not including warhead modernization work that would likely be required.
However, a number of Democratic lawmakers have come out strongly against the project, arguing that it would be costly and destabilizing. Some observers expect a highly partisan, budgetary fight over the program.

But Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., said there is significant support for LRSO within her party.

“There are people who seem destined to oppose it,” she said.

However, “we’ve had this discussion in groups of Democrats where someone will have said something that is negative [about the program] only to be very aggressively challenged by a number of us. So do not believe that the Democratic caucus is lockstep in any way. In fact, I think at this point … the position to not invest is a minority position,” she added.

The planned modernization of the U.S. nuclear arsenal, including support systems, is expected to cost hundreds of billions of dollars in the coming decades. Retired Air Force Gen. C. Robert Kehler, former commander of Stratcom, is pessimistic about how it will unfold.

“I am skeptical that we are capable of remaining committed to a long-term project like this without basically messing with it and screwing it up,” he said.

If officials keep adjusting the programmatics, “then pretty soon we’re over budget, the time is too long and then it goes further over budget,” he said. “We know what this litany looks like.”
Additionally, the political consensus about the need for nuclear modernization is fragile, he said. “There will be overwhelming temptation to tinker with it or to abandon pieces of it, especially as the world situation ebbs and flows, which it will do over the next 15, 20 years as this recapitalization is going on.”


Topics: Strategic Weapons, Missile Defense

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