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Air Force Eyes Mobile Options for Future ICBMs

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.” 

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