Nuclear Modernization Programs Advancing Amid Doubts (UPDATED)

By Jon Harper

The Air Force is moving forward with plans to develop new ground-based intercontinental ballistic missiles and air-launched cruise missiles. But there are doubts about whether the programs will be fully funded in the coming decades.

In August, Boeing and Northrop Grumman were awarded $349 million and $329 million contracts respectively to conduct technology maturation and risk reduction work for the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent, known as GBSD, which is expected to replace legacy ICBMs. The goal is to “deliver a low technical risk, affordable total system replacement of Minuteman III,” the Defense Department said in a news release.

The Air Force also awarded Lockheed Martin and Raytheon $900 million each for the technology maturation and risk reduction phase of the Long Range Stand-Off weapon, known as LRSO, which is intended to replace aging AGM-86B air-launched cruise missiles. 

But some analysts question whether enough money will be available to fully fund the GBSD and LRSO programs down the road. The Pentagon is also pursuing next-generation stealth bombers and ballistic missile submarines, which could compete for procurement dollars. 

“All three legs of the U.S. nuclear triad are currently slated for modernization in the next 10 to 20 years,” Amy Woolf, a nuclear weapons policy specialist, said in a recent Congressional Research Service report titled, “U.S. Strategic Nuclear Forces: Background, Development and Issues.”

“Each of these programs is likely to stress the budgets and financial capabilities of the services,” she added.

Pentagon cost estimates for the GBSD program have ranged from $62 billion to $85 billion. The LRSO program has been estimated to cost $10.8 billion, Woolf said.

Defense Department officials have said that current nuclear modernization plans could come with a $350 billion to $450 billion price tag over the next 20 years, and some think tank analysts have projected even higher costs. At the same time, the Pentagon will also be trying to fund big-ticket conventional weapon systems such as the F-35 joint strike fighter.

“While the Air Force appears committed to pursuing the development of a new ground-based strategic deterrent, there is growing recognition among analysts that fiscal constraints may alter this approach,” Woolf said.

The ongoing Nuclear Posture Review is likely to strongly reaffirm the need to maintain and modernize all three legs of the triad, said Mackenzie Eaglen, a defense budget expert at the American Enterprise Institute.

That conclusion would have strong political support from President Donald Trump and Congress, she said. Whether the efforts will be fully funded in accordance with the Pentagon’s schedule is another matter.

The budgets that Trump has already proposed and the expected topline figures for the fiscal year 2019 budget blueprint “simply do not support full modernization,” Eaglen said in an email. “Things will get squeezed and pushed to the right. The most likely candidate is the ground-based leg, partly because it is the last to modernize and partly because it is easily criticized as the most vulnerable leg.”

Unofficially, there is a hierarchy of support for the different components of the next-generation nuclear force, she said. The Navy’s Columbia-class ballistic missile submarine tops the list, followed by the B-21 bomber and the GBSD. “Funding will flow accordingly,” she said. 

All three legs could see funding and quantity trims, she added.

The most controversial of the nuclear modernization programs is the Long Range Stand-Off weapon.

“Analysts outside government and several members of Congress have questioned whether the Air Force needs to accelerate the LRSO program and whether the United States needs and can afford to develop and produce a new cruise missile in the coming decade,” Woolf said. “They have questioned whether the capabilities provided by the LRSO may be redundant, as the Air Force is also developing a new penetrating bomber.”

A contingent of Democratic lawmakers has come out strongly against the new cruise missile, creating additional uncertainty about its future prospects.

“It is super controversial,” Eaglen said. “This program will be a partisan fight from beginning to end.”

Correction: a previous version of this story misspelled Amy Woolf's name.

Topics: Defense Department, CBRN, Nuclear

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