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Air Force Eyes Mobile Options for Future ICBMs

This article was originally published in Global Security Newswire, produced independently by National Journal Group under contract with the Nuclear Threat Initiative. NTI is a nonprofit, nonpartisan group working to reduce global threats from nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons.

The Air Force is studying a wide range of options for how to base future nuclear ICBMs, including the possibility of making them mobile rather than installing them in fixed underground silos, a service official said in an interview (see GSN, Jan. 30).

Initial analyses have weighed the prospects for simply remanufacturing today’s Minuteman 3 ICBMs, according to Col. John Johnson, who heads ICBM requirements at the Air Force Global Strike Command. The Pentagon also has looked at a variety of new options for a future ground-based leg of the nuclear triad, he said last week.

The 2010 Nuclear Posture Review, a major report on the nation’s nuclear strategy, forces, and readiness, said the Pentagon would explore “new modes of ICBM basing that enhance survivability and further reduce any incentives for prompt launch.”


This might include fielding missiles that could be dispersed on trucks or trains in a crisis, according to experts. The Air Force has 450 Minuteman 3 missiles based in underground launch structures in three states.

Under the terms of last year’s New START arms-control agreement with Russia, the United States has said it would retain no more than 420 Minuteman 3 ICBMs. The replacement ballistic missiles are to be fielded by 2030 as today’s Minuteman missiles are retired.

In initial studies, the Air Force’s strike headquarters “reviewed the spectrum of options from upgrading the current system that we have in the field today, and all the way up to replacing with a new system with alternate basing, as directed in the NPR,” Johnson told Global Security Newswire in a Jan. 31 interview. “Those are the scope [of options] that we’re looking at.”

The service official declined to provide further detail about the possible technology solutions under consideration, citing the “sensitive nature of the assessment.”

Air Force Global Strike Command last year completed a preliminary programmatic phase for the future ICBM, in which officials drafted a secret “initial-capabilities document” outlining the main features needed for the future missile to perform its military missions.

Air Force officials plan to vet the requirements document through the Louisiana-based command and submit it to service headquarters for approval by March, Johnson said on Monday in a written response to additional questions. By June, the Air Force hopes to receive multiservice support for its future ICBM requirements in the form of a nod from the Pentagon’s top-level Joint Requirements Oversight Council, he said.

Johnson and his colleagues are also now preparing for the next preparatory phase of the future ICBM program, in which they will draft a formal “Analysis of Alternatives” for actually filling the requirements laid out in the initial-capabilities document.

In addition to discussing basing options, missile-requirements documents typically set performance parameters such as speed, range, and payload.

Beginning late last summer, Johnson and his command began establishing work groups and formulating a study plan for the Analysis of Alternatives. 

The study plan is “starting to put boundaries on to the left side, to the right side, of what we need to look at,” he said. “And then that will inform or prepare us better for the Analysis of Alternatives.”

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz last February said his service would request funds to begin the so-called “AOA” in fiscal 2013 (see GSN, March 23, 2011).  The Obama administration on Monday is expected to release its budget plan for the coming fiscal year, which begins on Oct. 1.

The Air Force has budgeted more than $10 million in fiscal 2013 and a similar amount in 2014 to conduct the major analysis, according to other defense sources who declined to be named in discussing as-yet unannounced spending plans.

The Analysis of Alternatives was earlier planned to have begun in fiscal 2012 and completed in 2014, when “DOD will recommend a specific way-ahead for an ICBM follow-on to the president,” according to a 2010 administration report to Congress dubbed the “1251 Update.” Although it is now clear the analysis will begin late, Johnson declined to address current expectations for when the AOA process would conclude.

The Air Force colonel did indicate, though, that the Analysis of Alternatives would speak to whether a future ICBM should be able to carry only a single warhead or alternatively, perhaps, include a capacity for additional warheads to be “uploaded.” 

The Nuclear Posture Review said that all Minuteman 3s on alert today would be “de-MIRVed” and carry just one warhead, even though they were originally built to deliver up to three warheads. 

The review said that loading all Minuteman 3s with a single warhead would increase stability at times of crisis by “reducing the incentives for either side to strike first.”  A missile with fewer warheads makes a less attractive target for Washington’s nuclear adversaries and diminishes the risk of a “use-or-lose” phenomenon, according to conventional wisdom in nuclear-policy circles.

The Pentagon’s posture review did not specifically say, however, whether a future ground-based missile might be able to carry more than a single weapon. 

Some analysts argue that such a feature could help Washington hedge against a potentially resurgent Russia or the unexpected rise of another significant nuclear-weapons state. On the other hand, it also might compel similar -- and unwelcome -- hedging actions abroad.

“Some ability to ‘upload’ nondeployed nuclear weapons on existing delivery vehicles should be retained as a hedge against technical or geopolitical surprise,” the 2010 nuclear review stated. 

It added a caveat, though, against a multiwarhead capability on ICBMs: “Preference will be given to upload capacity for bombers and strategic submarines.”

With budget pressures mounting in Congress and at the Pentagon, there have been increasing calls to eliminate plans for a next-generation ICBM, and perhaps move to a two-legged nuclear “dyad” (see GSN, Feb. 8). 

However, Johnson emphasized the importance of retaining ICBMs into the future, alongside ballistic missile-armed submarines and nuclear-capable bomber aircraft.

“The stability of an on-alert, homeland-based ICBM force is increasingly vital to offset the potential for instability as arsenal sizes decline,” Johnson said in written responses.  “Such a force raises the threshold for adversary attack on the homeland and negates any perception that an adversary could achieve a ‘fait accompli’ through a small-scale first strike.”

Today’s expenditure-cutting mandates -- which have already triggered a $487 billion defense-budget reduction over the next decade -- could compel the Air Force and Navy to team up on the development of selected technologies for future ballistic missiles, according to military sources.

Johnson was reluctant to discuss details, but did acknowledge behind-the-scenes discussion about the potential for the two services to jointly build technologies for missile guidance, propulsion, and fuses.

If this type of approach proves feasible, future Air Force and Navy ballistic missiles might share the same design for these key components, even if the weapons differ in other ways, according to other defense sources.

Navy leaders plan to initially field today’s nuclear-armed Trident D-5 ballistic missiles aboard their future Ohio-class replacement submarines, but also hope to develop a next-generation missile to replace the D-5 after the new vessels begin deploying (see GSN, Feb. 4, 2011). The Navy also wants to design a new, conventionally armed ballistic missile for its Virginia-class submarines (see GSN, Jan. 27).

“Because Navy and Air Force strategic-missile systems have different operating environments, having a completely common missile system is not achievable,” Johnson noted.  “However, the Air Force is already working with the Navy in several technical areas.”

Those include a fuse-modernization effort, the development of updated guidance-system components, and the study of common rocket-booster technologies, he said.

“As DOD programs continue to compete for limited fiscal resources, it becomes more important for the Air Force and the Navy to leverage to the greatest extent possible our expertise” and identify technologies that could be used in both services’ missile systems, Johnson said.

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