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August 27, 2018
Air Force Nuclear Programs Advance
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October 2017
By Kingston Reif

The U.S. Air Force in August awarded roughly $2.5 billion in contracts to four major defense companies to continue the initial development of new fleets of air-launched cruise missiles (ALCMs) and intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs).

The contracts come as the Trump administration continues to conduct a comprehensive review of U.S. nuclear weapons policy and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has yet to endorse the new ALCM program, known as the long-range standoff weapon.

The administration’s first budget request released in May proposes to continue the Obama administration’s costly plans to rebuild the U.S. nuclear triad and its supporting infrastructure. (See ACT, July/August 2017.)

A Congressional Budget Office (CBO) report in February estimated that the United States will spend $400 billion on nuclear weapons during fiscal years 2017 to 2026. (See ACT, March 2017.) That is an increase of $52 billion, or 15 percent, from the CBO’s previous 10-year estimate of $348 billion, which was published in January 2015.

The budget office’s latest projection suggests that the cost of nuclear forces could far exceed $1 trillion over the next 30 years.

It remains to be seen whether the administration’s Nuclear Posture Review will make changes to the Obama administration’s nuclear upgrade plans. The review is slated for completion later this year.

Mattis told reporters on Sept. 13 that he is evaluating “each element” of the U.S. nuclear triad “very critically.” He said the administration would not retain weapons “just because we had them 30 years ago.”

The Air Force awarded two $900 million contracts to Lockheed Martin Corp. and Raytheon Co. “to mature design concepts and prove developmental technologies” for the new cruise missile, according to an Aug. 21 service press release. The contracts cover a 54-month period of development after which the Air Force will choose one of the contractors to complete development and begin production.

The Air Force is developing the long-range standoff weapon to replace the existing ALCM. The service says a new ALCM is needed because the existing missiles are becoming increasingly difficult to maintain and losing their ability to penetrate sophisticated air defenses. The new missile will be compatible with the B-2 and B-52H bombers, as well as the planned B-21.

Mattis has not yet expressed a position on the program. He told reporters on Sept. 13 that the contracts “maintain” building the new ALCMs “as an option” but a final decision on whether to proceed “will come out of a Nuclear Posture Review.”

The Air Force selected Boeing Co. and Northrop Grumman Systems Corp. to proceed with development of the Minuteman III replacement, known as the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD) system. The contracts are “valued at no more than $359 million each” and cover of period of approximately 36 months, according to an Aug. 21 service press release.

The GBSD missile is slated to replace the Minuteman III missiles and their supporting infrastructure and remain in service through the 2070s. An independent Pentagon cost estimate conducted last summer found that the cost of the new ICBM program could be more than double the Air Force’s initial estimate. (See ACT, March 2017.)

The Air Force argues that a new ICBM is necessary because the Minuteman III, which is slated for retirement beginning in 2030, is becoming too expensive to maintain. But some analysts claim that the life of the Minuteman III can be extended at less cost than buying new missiles.

But some analysts claim that there could be more cost-effective alternatives to buying new missiles.

For example, in a report published on Sept. 21, Todd Harrison, director of defense budget analysis at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, wrote that extending the life of the existing Minuteman III missiles could delay the need for the ground based strategic deterrent “by more than a decade” and “would likely cost somewhat less than the current program of record.” —KINGSTON REIF