The Pentagon is preparing to approve development and production of a new intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), opening competition between three top defence contractors and rekindling debate over whether the US can afford to modernise its triad of nuclear weapons.
Frank Kendall, the defence department’s top weapons buyer, has convened a closed session of the defence acquisition board for Wednesday to review the US air force’s acquisition strategy and updated cost estimates for replacing Minuteman III nuclear-armed missiles that have sat in silos for almost 50 years.
The air force last year estimated the programme would cost US$62.3 billion for research, development and production of as many as 400 missiles as well as command and control systems and infrastructure. Lockheed Martin, Boeing and Northrop Grumman are all competing to build the new ICBMs.
The other arms of the nation’s land-air-sea nuclear triad also are scheduled to be modernised: Northrop defeated a Lockheed-Boeing team in October for the right to build a new bomber that can carry nuclear weapons, a project valued at as much as $80bn. The Navy is planning to replace its Ohio-class nuclear-armed submarines through a production program now estimated at $122bn.
Updated estimates for the cost of the missiles have been prepared by the air force and and the Pentagon’s independent cost assessment office but have not yet been released. The navy is also updating its submarine estimate for a review later this year.
The new forecasts are likely to add to the debate over whether coming administrations will be able to afford what defence analysts call a “bow wave” of costs converging in the next decade for the new nuclear systems as well as nine air force conventional systems and plans for increased construction of naval vessels such as a second Ford-class aircraft carrier.
The ICBM “milestone marks the official beginning of the technology development stage where contracts will be awarded and spending” will “begin to ramp up” from about $75 million this year to $1.6bn in 2021, said Todd Harrison, a defence budget analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Arms control organisations and some Pentagon officials say the nuclear triad’s modernisation could cost as much as $1 trillion over 30 years if research, procurement, operations and support are included.
By way of comparison, Pentagon analysts estimate that Lockheed’s F-35 jet, the military’s most expensive programme, may cost as much as $1.12tn over 60 years to support.
“It’s also important to put these costs in context,” Mr Harrison said. “The US will likely spend more than $20tn over the next 30 years on defence, so $1tn is only a small fraction of that.”
Still, the bow wave’s cost is likely to force the air force to delay the ICBM programme or cancel it in favour of modifying the existing missiles because the service has higher priorities, predicted Kingston Reif, an analyst with the Arms Control Association.
The Pentagon review “reflects the current department and service commitment to the program, but it’s far from a point of no return,” Mr Reif said.
Admiral Cecil Haney, the head of the US strategic command, told a House armed services committee panel last month the new missile programme is necessary because a comprehensive nuclear deterrence “requires us to have a complex problem for an adversary”.
“If that programme is delayed it really puts the one leg of the triad at significant risk” from “a reliability standpoint”, Mr Haney said.
The Air Force plans to award two 36-month contracts by September 2017 for the ICBM’s technology development phase and then one contract in about 2020 for engineering, manufacturing, development and first five production lots, said Leah Bryant, a spokeswoman for the air force nuclear weapons centre. Competition for numerous aspects of the missile programme will also be offered, she added.
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