Nuclear Missile Replacement Program at a Crossroads
Photo: Air Force
The Air Force has been touting the need to replace the nation’s intercontinental ballistic missiles, one of the three legs of the nuclear arsenal. But a recent decision by Boeing not to compete for the next phase of the replacement program raises questions about the future of the initiative.
The Minuteman IIIs are aging, and Pentagon leaders aim to start deploying a next-generation system, the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent, in 2028. The GBSD program is one of its top nuclear modernization initiatives, with an estimated value of $85 billion or more.
In July, the Air Force released a request for proposals for the engineering and manufacturing development phase that includes five production lot options to produce and deploy the weapon system. Boeing and Northrop Grumman — the two contractors working on the technology maturation and risk reduction phase — were expected to compete for the EMD contract, with an award expected in the fourth quarter of fiscal year 2020.
“The GBSD program office members have worked hard to analyze the costs of every requirement, used modeling and simulation to evaluate every decision and keep the design, development and deployment of the weapon system on track,” program manager Col. Jason Bartolomei said in a press release.
However, soon after the RFP was issued, Boeing announced that it did not intend to bid, saying it did not believe it would be competing on a level playing field with Northrop Grumman.
The Air Force declined to provide on-the-record comment about Boeing’s decision.
“While the Air Force remains in source selection, we will not provide any comments to preserve the integrity of the competitive process,” said Capt. Cara Bousie, a spokeswoman for Air Force acquisition chief Will Roper.
The service now has four options for the EMD phase, said Peter Huessy, director of strategic deterrent studies at the Mitchell Institute: go with Northrop Grumman; create a joint Boeing-Northrop Grumman team; recompete the contract and seek to include other companies as well; or rework the RFP to address Boeing’s objections and ensure both Boeing and Northrop Grumman bid on the contract.
Another potential option floated by some observers is conducting another Minuteman III life extension.
“The Air Force has yet to demonstrate that sustaining the Minuteman III, in my view, beyond the missiles’ expected retirement in the 2020-2030 timeframe is not a viable or more cost-effective near-term option,” Kingston Reif, director for disarmament and threat reduction policy at the Arms Control Association, said at a recent conference. The news that Boeing does not plan to submit a proposal for the next GBSD contract is “a large red flag” that reinforces the need to defer the program.
Critics of delaying the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent initiative say it would cost more money in the long run.
“It gets more expensive as time goes on to support and sustain the [Minuteman III] force,” Huessy said in an email. “Possible shortfalls such as required penetration capabilities are of a concern with a [service life extension program], to also say nothing of the added benefit — worth billions in savings through lower annual sustainment costs — you would receive through GBSD’s anticipated modular technology.”
A big question mark is whether Congress would go along with the Air Force awarding a non-competitive EMD contract if Boeing remains on the sideline. The Trump administration would have to determine the level of support on the Hill and move forward appropriately, Huessy said.
“A key misunderstood point is that there has been considerable competition already as both prospective bidders put multiple millions of dollars into putting together a cost-effective team to bid on this initial GBSD contract,” he said. “Whether in sole source, in competition or teaming [the two companies] together, the country would be getting a highly cost-effective effort.”
The upcoming 2020 elections could have major implications for the program because the issue of nuclear modernization is likely to divide the candidates, noted Giselle Donnelly, a defense and national security policy fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
Any delay to the GBSD program would jack up the price tag, make it vulnerable to cuts and undermine nuclear deterrence, she said in an AEI blog titled, “The No-Nuke ’80s Creep Back.” The Trump administration should therefore fast-track the effort.
“It’s easier to kill a program before it gets underway and a contract awarded,” she said. “With Democrats lashed to the arms-control mast, the issue can be a defining one for the [Trump] administration. But time is of the essence … to save the GBSD.”
Topics: Strategic Weapons