Next-Gen Nuclear Missile Viewed as Pathfinder

By Jon Harper
GBSD concept art

Northrop Grumman concept

The Pentagon’s effort to acquire new intercontinental ballistic missiles is being touted as a program that could serve as a model for future modernization initiatives. The project faces a tight schedule with little margin for hiccups.

The Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent, or GBSD, program aims to replace the aging Minuteman III nuclear-armed ICBMs that first became operational in 1970. 

In September, Northrop Grumman was awarded a $13.3 billion engineering and manufacturing development contract for the effort. The eight-year EMD phase will include weapon system design, qualification, test and evaluation and nuclear certification. Afterward the platform is expected to move into production.

“GBSD ramps quickly,” said Kathy Warden, chairman, president and CEO of Northrop, during an earnings call in October. The company anticipates the project will contribute nearly $1 billion of incremental growth to its space systems division in 2021.

Air Force officials say the new missiles will have increased accuracy, extended range and improved reliability compared to the legacy Minuteman III.

GBSD will be also modular in design and have open mission systems, noted Gen. Timothy Ray, commander of Air Force Global Strike Command.

“I can rapidly modify, upgrade and, more importantly, sustain it,” he said during a media roundtable. “We will see a two-thirds reduction in the number of [security and maintenance] convoys I have to conduct. There will be a two-thirds reduction in the number of times I actually have to … open the launcher and close the door. And when I talk to the teammates at [the office of the secretary of defense] they absolutely affirm that we’ve really designed sustainment and modernization into this in an incredibly creative and effective way.”

The system is expected to be fielded around 2030 and remain in the arsenal until 2070.

Todd Harrison, director of defense budget analysis and the Aerospace Security Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said upgrades will likely be necessary over time to stay ahead of competitors.

“As adversaries develop more sophisticated and effective missile defense systems of their own, then we will need to build countermeasures into our ICBM force to be able to penetrate through their missile defense systems,” he said. “There are a lot of different ways you could do that with hypersonic glide bodies, with decoys, things like that that you can build into it.”

Air Force officials have been circumspect about whether they intend to give the weapon hypersonic glide capabilities, which could make it much more maneuverable and harder to shoot down than traditional ballistic missiles.

“I will avoid the conversation on that … because of classification considerations,” Ray said when asked about it by National Defense.

Lt. Gen. Richard Clark, who recently served as Air Force deputy chief of staff for strategic deterrence and nuclear integration, said hypersonic glide capabilities are not part of the threshold requirement for the system, but he noted that GBSD will have an open architecture.

“As we bring the system online, we will ensure that we have the ability to roll different technologies in,” he said at an event hosted by the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies.

A key element of the program has been digital engineering, which involves using digital models — also known as “digital twins” or “digital threads” throughout the acquisition process including design, assembly, testing, maintenance and upgrades — to better simulate how systems will perform in the real world.

“We had godlike insight into all things GBSD,” Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics Will Roper told reporters.

Ray said the technology enabled more than a dozen design cycles that helped drive down risk during the technology maturation and risk reduction phase, which wrapped up earlier this year. Northrop and Boeing were the two companies that participated in that phase.

“We required both vendors to be in the same digital engineering environment as the government team, and that commonality provides a level of insight I’ve never seen” before, Roper said.

Boeing decided not to bid for the EMD contract last year after Northrop Grumman acquired solid rocket motor manufacturer Orbital ATK. That left Northrop as the last competitor standing.

Some observers expressed concerns that a lack of further industry competition would hurt the government. Roper said digital engineering tools will help the Air Force control costs.

“It doesn’t just help you engineer programs, it helps you evaluate proposals, it helps you do cost estimation because all of that is digitally decomposed, and there’s no place to hide because you have a digital representation of the entire system and its lifecycle,” he said.

“As we close out a successful EMD, we will go into production with actual cost and pricing, and we will … ensure that as we get into negotiations on production lots, that they are fair and anchored prices for the government,” he added. “This is a harbinger of things to come of having more balanced negotiations, where government teams are more empowered because of these digital tools.”

Every new major acquisition effort will begin by building a digitally engineered system, Roper suggested.

Warden said GBSD marked the first time that Northrop delivered items for review in a fully digital environment on a program of this size.

Observers can expect more of that in the future, she noted.

“As we think about next-generation air dominance and the programs that are part of that overall campaign … they, too, will benefit from a full digital engineering thread as is being required by our customers,” she said.

Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment Ellen Lord noted that project managers are leveraging agile software development and development security and operations, or DevSecOps, methodologies that will help deliver capabilities faster and more securely.

“GBSD’s DevSecOps … support mission requirements while streamlining the acquisition process and have allowed the program to gain accreditation and begin early development with industry in less than four months,” she said during a press briefing in October.

Ray said: “I would call this a pathfinder program in terms of its approach. I would call it a pathfinder program in how we have to create the margin in the system to be competitive in the long haul.”

However, sustained funding will be required to keep the project on track and have the new missiles fielded around 2030, experts say.

The projected price tag of the GBSD program is upwards of $95 billion. Analysts expect defense spending to be constrained in coming years as lawmakers try to tamp down historically high federal budget deficits. But Harrison doesn’t expect GBSD to be on the chopping block anytime soon, even if Democrats — who historically have been less enthusiastic about nuclear modernization than Republicans — gain more power in Washington, D.C.

While some Democrats are expected to take aim at the program, “I don’t think it’s likely that that funding will actually get cut, for the simple reason that when you start looking at the details of it, unless you’re willing to make some pretty deep reductions in the size of the land-based component of the nuclear triad, you don’t have a lot of options” besides building GBSD, Harrison said.

Regular testing of the Minuteman III is projected to reduce the ICBM force below requirements by the early 2030s, he noted. “We’re going to run out of missiles.”

Air Force officials have been banging the drum about the risk to deterrence if GBSD is delayed or scaled back. The service wants to replace the 400 Minuteman IIIs currently in operation and acquire additional next-gen missiles to be used for testing.

It’s possible that the planned procurement for GBSD could be reduced at some point. However, “the most logical way to make those reductions is to truncate the buy of missiles near the end of production, which is not going to save you any money until the 2030s,” Harrison said. “As long as you’re going to maintain at least some land-based component of the triad, you don’t have a lot of options in terms of continuing the development program that’s underway right now.”

Even former President Barack Obama, who won the Nobel Peace Prize for advocating for the eventual elimination of all nuclear weapons, ended up concluding that the GBSD initiative needed to be kept on track, Harrison noted.

The campaign press office for President-Elect Joe Biden did not respond to a request for comment about his position on funding GBSD.
On Capitol Hill, concerns about jobs could motivate lawmakers to support the program and defeat any efforts to cut it.

The industry team for the effort includes a number of major contractors, plus hundreds of small and medium-sized companies. The project will involve over 10,000 workers, according to Northrop.

“You’ve got more constituents that are going to advocate to their own congressional leaders to try to keep the program,” Harrison said. “Now that they’ve got the EMD contract awarded and the work is ramping up, it does become politically more difficult to kill it.”

Boeing could protest the award, but Harrison doesn’t think it would be sustained.

“The likelihood of the source selection getting overturned now is diminishing,” he said.

Boeing did not provide comment for this story regarding any protest plans.

However, even if the program isn’t derailed politically, there is still programmatic risk.

“It’s a tough schedule,” Harrison said. “I don’t think they have a lot of margin. … They are going to have to work hard to keep it on track.”

Air Force officials have touted the risk reduction efforts that have been undertaken. But ICBMs are still complex platforms.

“This is a brand new system that they’re building,” Harrison said. “The propulsion system and other things are certainly derived from systems that have already been developed and tested extensively, but there’s still a lot of risks in the program.” That includes the ground-based components, he noted.

“Building the new launch systems and control centers and all of the kind of construction work that goes around that — that’s a significant part of the program,” he said. “There could be a lot of unknowns that are uncovered as they start doing more and more of that work.”

The Pentagon is already worried about challenges related to infrastructure that will be tied to GBSD.

“We have 500 separate items that need to be updated,” Lord told members of the Senate Armed Services Committee during a hearing in September, adding that it would be “rather onerous” to have that many separate projects in the military construction, or MILCON, account. It would be better to consolidate those in a separate account, she said.

“We would ask [Congress] that we move some of that money out of MILCON to give us the flexibility on the program execution side to move forward along the timelines,” Lord said.

Officials shouldn’t allow programmatic risks to create operational risks, she said. “I’m afraid if we don’t move some of that money out of MILCON, that’s exactly what we would be doing.”

Topics: Strategic Weapons

Comments (1)

Re: Next-Gen Nuclear Missile Viewed as Pathfinder

Why can't the USN and the Airforce collaborate, and use the same missile? I this is modular, could the Navy use a base model in their SSBNs and the Airforce use a missile with an added boost 'module' to kick the extra mileage?

andy at 1:18 PM
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