The Opportunity Exists To Move Faster On Nuclear Modernization – Forbes

Posted: February 14, 2020 at 8:47 pm

Maintenance team attends to Minuteman III

A significant portion of Americas nuclear deterrent force currently relies on intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) that were fielded over forty years ago. This mission, which represents the bedrock of U.S. security, demands modern technology. The time for a replacement is now.

Since the dawn of the nuclear age, nuclear deterrence has been an enduring tenet of U.S. defense strategy.It is fundamental to checking threats from Russia and China who possess sufficient numbers of nuclear weapons to pose an existential threat to the U.S. The U.S. nuclear triadcomprised of air, sea, and ground launched nuclear weapons, each with unique characteristics and advantages that collectively compensate for the disadvantages of the othersremains the cornerstone of effective U.S. nuclear deterrence. Yet, over the past three decades, every leg of the U.S. triad has been allowed to age, if not atrophy.

The LGM-30 Minuteman III, is the ICBM land leg of the U.S. nuclear triadand is complemented by theTridentsubmarine-launched ballistic missile(SLBM), and nuclear weapons carried by long-range bombers. The first Minuteman was developed in the late 1950s and the current Minuteman III entered service with the Air Force in the 1970s.Originally intended for a service life of just a decade, the Air Force invested in a series of service life extension programs (SLEPs) through the 1990s and early 2000s in order to maintain the Minuteman III force through 2030. The deferment of a new ICBM system meant that any replacement would likely be fielded at thenear endof the Minutemans existing service life.

Russia and China, meanwhile, developed and deployed a wide variety of new ICBMsto include rail and road mobile variants. Russias newest ICBM, theRS-28 Sarmat, was publicly unveiled by Russian President Putinin 2018. China has developed several long-range ICBMs, most notably theDF-31and theDF-41 capable ofcarrying 10 independently targetable nuclear warheads. China has also recently tested an SLBMsignaling their intent to deploy a full-fledged triad themselves.

While the number of nuclear weapons Russia and the U.S. possesses is determined in part by arms control agreements, there are only bilateral treaties between the U.S. and Russia. China was not a party to any of the Cold War era arms control agreements and is not a party to any similar treaty today.

In 2014, the Air Force determined that a new ICBM system would be required to maintain effective U.S. nuclear deterrence and assurance beyond 2030. This was largely due to concerns about flexibility of the missile system as new threats emerged over time and ever escalating maintenance costs on the aging Minuteman III system. The Air Force then ran a series of competitions among industry leaders to design and produce this new system. In the end, after three years of competition, only one contractor submitted a bid. This fact affords the Air Force an opportunity to accelerate the new ICBM program now called the ground based strategic deterrent (GBSD). The Air Forces original acquisition schedule anticipated the need to review multiple 1000+ page proposals. Now that this is unnecessary given the single bid, the Air Force is in a position to accelerate the GBSD acquisition process because it can avoid the multitude of time-consuming elements of the source selection process required when there is more than one bidder. This acceleration would provide some slack in the program schedule and meet U.S. Strategic Commands imperative to go fast.

It is not uncommon for the Defense Department to receive only one bid on major programs: the global positioning satellite (GPS) III, Presidential helicopter, armored multi-purpose vehicle, and the optionally manned fighting vehicle are just some of the solicitations that received a single bid. There are regulations for the government to follow in these situations that yield transparency and insight into the bidders pricing.

One of the challenges of this program is the strict schedule. Through age and attrition, the size of the Minuteman III missile force will dwindle dramatically after 2030. That means the program must meet its critical milestones on timelike first flight and full functional test. Time is of the essence to design, develop, and test all the sub-systems that need to be integrated for first flight. Every month that the engineers spend focused on this program is an investment in risk reduction and schedule certainty.

While no one could have predicted the dynamics in the aerospace industry landscape when this program was first authorized, a series of unusual circumstances have gifted the Air Force the opportunity to accelerate the GBSD program. Deploying our new ICBM leg of the triad ahead of schedule and with considerable savings would be a big win for all Americans.

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The Opportunity Exists To Move Faster On Nuclear Modernization - Forbes

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