The U.S. Defense Department budget request for the coming fiscal year omits funds that were to have allowed the Air Force to study the prospects for a new ICBM to eventually replace today's Minuteman 3 arsenal, according to a senior service official (see GSN, April 26, 2010).
"To my knowledge, there's no funding in [fiscal 2012] for a future ICBM," Marilyn Thomas, budget deputy to the Air Force comptroller, said at a Monday news conference as the federal request was delivered to Congress.
A lack of budgeted funds to assess how to modernize the ground-based missile leg of the strategic nuclear triad could prove controversial on Capitol Hill, particularly among Republicans. A crucial sweetener for winning Senate GOP votes in favor of ratifying a new U.S.-Russian arms control treaty late last year was the Obama administration's commitment to modernizing nuclear warheads and delivery platforms.
The fiscal 2012 budget includes $197 million for research and development on a new Air Force long-range bomber -- potentially either manned or unmanned -- that would be ready for fielding in the mid-2020s. That is an early installment on $3.7 billion to be spent in developing the nuclear-capable aircraft over the next five to six years. Ultimately, 80 to 100 of the aircraft are to be built, defense officials said.
The funding plan also features $1.07 billion to develop a new ballistic missile submarine to replace today's Ohio-class vessels. The so-called "SSBN(X)" in December entered an initial developmental phase in which its design specifications will be honed (see GSN, Feb. 4).
These items are part of a $671 billion Defense Department budget request for the new fiscal year, which begins on October 1. In an unusual twist, next year's military spending plan is being delivered to Congress before lawmakers have passed defense appropriations for fiscal year 2011, which began last October. The federal government is operating on a continuing budget resolution -- based largely on fiscal 2010 funding levels -- that expires on March 4.
The Defense Department comptroller, Robert Hale, said on Monday that there is ICBM funding in the budget for fiscal 2012 and subsequent years.
"There's ICBM modernization money," Hale said in response to a reporter's question at a news briefing prior to the Air Force session at which Thomas spoke. "I don't have on top of my head the numbers. But there is a fairly aggressive modernization program of our ICBMs, our strategic forces."
Hale's office said Wednesday, though, that he was "referring to funding to sustain and upgrade the current ICBM fleet, rather than suggesting there was funding for new ICBMs."
The comptroller "concurs with what the Air Force spoke to in their briefing," his office said.
The Pentagon last spring declared in its Nuclear Posture Review -- a major assessment of strategy, forces and readiness -- that while "a decision on any follow-on ICBM is not needed for several years, studies to inform that decision are needed now."
The nation today fields 450 Minuteman 3 nuclear-armed missiles at three bases in North Dakota, Montana and Wyoming. Under the New START agreement, which entered into force on February 5, Washington will retain no more than 420 deployed Minuteman 3s, each armed with a single nuclear warhead.
The United States and Russia have seven years to complete reductions in their nuclear forces under the accord, which caps fielded strategic warheads at 1,550 and limits deployed strategic delivery systems to 700.
The Minuteman 3 first entered the force in 1970 and production of the missile ended eight years later. The system has undergone a number of upgrades over the years but must be replaced by 2030, Air Force officials say.
However, neither Thomas nor her uniformed counterpart, Maj. Gen. Alfred Flowers, were able to specify a time frame by which the Air Force must launch a formal program to procure a new ICBM or say when such a system would be fielded.
A spokesman for the service also was unable to offer specific dates, but did indicate there is no formal effort for a future ICBM at this time.
"The [Air Force] is executing a service life-extension for the Minuteman 3 program, extending the service life to 2030," said spokesman Andre Kok. "There is currently no program of record to develop a Minuteman 3 follow-on."