STRATCOM Chief Bashes Acquisition Trends for Nuclear Systems

By Jon Harper
An unarmed Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile launches during an operational test.

Photo: Air Force

The United States is preparing for a wide-ranging nuclear modernization effort in the coming years. But the timeline and costs for acquiring new systems are “unacceptable,” the commander of U.S. Strategic Command said June 20.
The Pentagon plans to acquire next-generation intercontinental ballistic missiles, ballistic missile submarines, long-range bombers, air-launched cruise missiles and nuclear command-and-control technologies in the 2020s and early 2030s. Existing systems are aging and are in need of replacement, Air Force Gen. John Hyten said at an Air Force Association event in Washington, D.C.
The replacements are scheduled to be delivered “just in time, and just in time is about 2029 to 2032,” he said. But the STRATCOM chief took a pessimistic view about whether the programs would remain on track.
“If you’ve been in the acquisition business at all over the last 20 years, you realize we already have a broken program. We just don’t know where. Because nothing in the acquisition business ever delivers exactly on time [and] exactly on budget anymore,” he said.
To illustrate the slower pace and higher cost of modern acquisition programs, Hyten compared existing plans for a new ICBM, known as the ground-based strategic deterrent, or GBSD, to the Minuteman I program that kicked off in the late 1950s.
The Minuteman I began receiving significant funding in 1959, he noted. The first deployment occurred in 1962. By 1964 there were 800 missiles stationed in five different bases across the United States. The effort cost about $17 billion in today’s dollars, he said.
In contrast, the current cost estimate for GBSD — which would replace the Minuteman III — is $84 billion for a force of 400 missiles, he said. Initial operational capability is planned for 2029, with full operational capability not expected until 2035.
“How did we get to the point where it used to be that we could deliver 800 three-stage solid rocket [ICBMs] … and we could do that in five years for $17 billion in current year money, and now it takes us … four times as long, [and it is] four times as expensive for half the capability?” Hyten asked.
Similar comparisons could be made with old and new nuclear submarine programs, he asserted.
“The status quo is unacceptable,” he said.
Acquisition officials aren’t the only ones to blame for the existing situation, Hyten emphasized. Defense Department leaders, lawmakers and industry have all contributed to the problem, he said.
“This is not an indictment of the acquisition community. It’s not an indictment of the political process. It’s not an indictment of our budget process. It’s an indictment of every one of us because we’re all part of that,” he said.
Several trends are holding back major acquisition programs, he said. One is an excessively cautious and plodding testing process.
“We tie the hands of our engineers and acquisition folks because we expect every test to work, and if it doesn’t work it’s on the front page of the newspaper,” he said. “We have got to get back to where we allow people to take risks.”
Hyten made an unflattering comparison with the pace of North Korea’s ballistic missile development efforts. “Look at Kim Jong Un,” he said. “What he’s doing is testing and failing, testing and failing, testing and failing, testing and succeeding. … He’s learned how to go fast.”
Excessive bureaucracy and micromanagement are also a hindrance, he added.
“We’ve got to get back to where we assign the best and brightest program managers and let them run their programs,” he said. “If you want to go fast you have to empower people with authority and responsibility to execute things fast. … We have not been empowering people.”
If programs are poorly run, the Pentagon can simply tap another program manager to take over, he suggested. “You fire that person in a very public way and you go find somebody else.”
Hyten held up the Air Force’s Rapid Capabilities Office as a model for how the broader acquisition system could be improved.
“When the authorities are given to a small core of people in the Rapid Capabilities Office … they go fast and deliver capabilities,” he said.
Additionally, there is not enough engagement with industry, he said. “Success will be when a program manager in our business spends more time with industry than he does in this town, because right now they spend all their time in this town,” Hyten said referring to Washington, D.C.
After his speech, Hyten told reporters that he would hold the acquisition community and industry’s feet to the fire in an attempt to bring new nuclear systems online more quickly.
“The pressure I’m going to apply is to every element of the triad including the new long-range standoff weapon, including the B-21, including the GBSD, the submarine, the weapons,” he said. “I need all of those schedules to move to the left.”
Speeding up the weapons development and procurement process is not a pipedream, he insisted.
“This is the United States of America. We have the greatest minds, the best and brightest,” Hyten said. The Pentagon just needs to “get back to the basics.”
“We have to learn from our history and not just allow the status quo to overtake us,” he added.

Topics: Strategic Weapons

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