Key Targeting Tech for Future U.S. Nuclear Missile Has Gone Unfunded

The move may delay Minuteman 3 replacement effort or fail to meet warfighter accuracy standards.

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Aug. 19, 2014, 11:05 a.m.

OMAHA, Neb. — A lapse in fund­ing is po­ten­tially delay­ing by two years the de­vel­op­ment of a new U.S. nuc­le­ar mis­sile, ac­cord­ing to budget doc­u­ments provided to Con­gress and in­ter­views with de­fense sources.

The little-no­ticed spend­ing gap of $28 mil­lion — a min­is­cule frac­tion of the De­fense De­part­ment’s an­nu­al $500 bil­lion budget — is for de­vel­op­ing and test­ing new sol­id-state com­pon­ents seen as es­sen­tial for guid­ing the fu­ture Ground-Based Stra­tegic De­terrent mis­siles to their tar­gets.

The Air Force in­tends to be­gin re­pla­cing today’s 450 Minute­man 3 in­ter­con­tin­ent­al bal­list­ic mis­siles by 2030 with up to 420 of the so-called GBSD weapon sys­tems.

Some mil­it­ary in­siders at­trib­ute to Air Force in­fight­ing the di­ver­sion of the $28 mil­lion to oth­er uses in fisc­al 2014 — and a ser­vice fail­ure to re­quest any such funds in fisc­al 2015 — that would have provided Air Force Re­search Labor­at­ory-built hard­ware to three de­fense con­tract­ors for their fur­ther de­vel­op­ment.

Lack­ing the lab’s gov­ern­ment-fur­nished equip­ment — which con­tract­ors Boe­ing, Gen­er­al Dy­nam­ics and Lock­heed Mar­tin have each re­ques­ted — none of the three firms is ex­pec­ted to in­vest its own funds to mil­it­ar­ize com­mer­cial off-the-shelf sol­id-state guid­ance tech­no­logy used widely today in air­craft and mis­sile sys­tems.

Dur­ing a ma­jor Air Force study ef­fort of what the new GBSD mis­sile should be — with op­tions ran­ging from a simple Minute­man 3 look-alike to a brand new design — the ser­vice settled on what it has called a “hy­brid” concept. This re­com­mend­a­tion emer­ging from the “ana­lys­is of al­tern­at­ives” — be­gun last year and com­pleted in early Ju­ly — has been tent­at­ively ap­proved in re­cent meet­ings with De­fense Sec­ret­ary Chuck Hagel’s of­fice, Nex­t­gov has learned.

A Mo­bile Op­tion

The hy­brid plan for the Minute­man 3 re­place­ment would in­volve us­ing some of today’s mis­sile fea­tures — its ba­sic design, com­mu­nic­a­tions sys­tems and ex­ist­ing launch silos — while re­pla­cing aging rock­et mo­tors and tar­get­ing-guid­ance sys­tems.

While the Air Force awaits form­al, writ­ten con­firm­a­tion that its hy­brid op­tion can pro­ceed, this mis­sile design also would main­tain a pos­sib­il­ity for the GBSD weapons to be made mo­bile. The op­tion­al fea­ture could al­low the mis­siles to be re­moved from their silos and dis­persed by rail or truck if a nuc­le­ar at­tack against the United States ap­peared im­min­ent, in­creas­ing their abil­ity to sur­vive, of­fi­cials said.

Sev­er­al spoke on con­di­tion of not be­ing named to of­fer candor in ad­dress­ing sens­it­ive nuc­le­ar-arms mat­ters.

Yet one as­pect of the high-level thumbs-up — dir­ec­tion that the GBSD sys­tem should fea­ture an up­tick in ac­cur­acy com­pared to any of today’s U.S. nuc­le­ar sys­tems — already ap­pears to have jumped the rails.

In­clu­sion of the sol­id-state guid­ance sys­tem in the Minute­man 3 re­place­ment would al­low the United States to hit some of the toughest-to-des­troy en­emy tar­gets by us­ing just a single war­head rather than a bar­rage. This is a top-level but rarely dis­cussed U.S. nuc­le­ar-weapons ob­ject­ive, sup­por­ted by both Demo­crat­ic and Re­pub­lic­an ad­min­is­tra­tions, dat­ing back to a Re­agan-era in­terest in pre­ci­sion tar­get­ing as a sub­sti­tute for car­pet bomb­ing — a trend that has emerged more pub­licly in con­ven­tion­al warfight­ing.

Today, in the event of a nuc­le­ar con­flict, a U.S. pres­id­ent may want to go after heav­ily re­in­forced un­der­ground Rus­si­an mil­it­ary-com­mand cen­ters — an ex­ample of high-pri­or­ity fa­cil­it­ies said to be on the Pentagon’s top-secret tar­get list. In such a case, warfight­ers here at the Omaha-based U.S. Stra­tegic Com­mand would have to lob mul­tiple Minute­man 3 land-based mis­siles or Navy Tri­dent D-5 sub­mar­ine-based mis­siles to en­sure the tar­get’s dis­abling or de­struc­tion.

Speak­ing to re­port­ers last week at a com­mand-sponsored sym­posi­um on nuc­le­ar de­terrence (the mil­it­ary art of pre­vent­ing the most un­desir­able vi­ol­ence from oc­cur­ring) Adm. Cecil Haney avoided dis­cuss­ing any spe­cif­ic cap­ab­il­it­ies needed for the new Ground-Based De­terrent Sys­tem.

As head of U.S. Stra­tegic Com­mand — the top of­ficer who would carry out any White House or­der to launch a nuc­le­ar weapon — Haney did say how “ab­so­lutely” im­port­ant it is that the GBSD mis­sile meets his own warfight­er re­quire­ments, and noted that simply sus­tain­ing today’s Minute­man 3 cap­ab­il­it­ies in­to the fu­ture would not be suf­fi­cient.

The Air Force ana­lys­is of al­tern­at­ives was “to make sure that we have the re­quire­ments we need now and in­to the fu­ture,” he said. Aug­ment­ing the oth­er two legs of the U.S. nuc­le­ar tri­ad — bomber air­craft and sub­mar­ines — the ground-based mis­sile ar­sen­al “really has an im­pact as­so­ci­ated with our de­terrence cal­cu­lus and cap­ab­il­it­ies,” he ad­ded.

Yet, some of­fi­cials at the Air Force Sys­tems Dir­ect­or­ate based at Hill Air Force Base, Utah, have sug­ges­ted as a pos­sible al­tern­at­ive to the more ac­cur­ate sol­id state guid­ance sys­tem re­quired to meet long­stand­ing warfight­er tar­get­ing re­quire­ments the use in­stead of today’s Minute­man mech­an­ic­al guid­ance com­pon­ents in the fu­ture GBSD sys­tem.

Units based at Hill per­form main­ten­ance and re­pair on today’s Minute­man 3 guid­ance units, giv­ing of­fi­cials there what some see as a pa­ro­chi­al stake re­gard­ing which tech­no­logy is se­lec­ted for the fu­ture ICBM re­place­ment mis­siles and their com­pon­ents, in­clud­ing the guid­ance sys­tems.

Mixed Mes­sages

Com­pared to the mech­an­ic­al guid­ance in­stru­ments found in today’s Minute­man 3 mis­siles, sol­id state of­fers longev­ity, mean­ing these sys­tems would not have to be re­paired any­where near as of­ten, Air Force brief­ings sug­gest. Today’s Minute­man 3 guid­ance sys­tems break down roughly every three years, where­as sol­id state units are ex­pec­ted to last ap­prox­im­ately 20 years without re­quir­ing re­pair or re­place­ment, ac­cord­ing to De­fense De­part­ment data.

Air Force of­fi­cials and doc­u­ments also sug­gest that be­cause sol­id state in­er­tial meas­ure­ment units are ubi­quit­ous in com­mer­cial avi­ation and a num­ber of the Pentagon’s con­ven­tion­ally armed mis­sile sys­tems, they of­fer sig­ni­fic­ant cost ad­vant­ages from the get-go. Even after be­ing mil­it­ar­ized for use on a nuc­le­ar mis­sile, the sol­id state tech­no­logy de­veloped by the Air Force re­search lab is es­tim­ated at $800,000 apiece, com­pared to a $2.5 mil­lion unit cost for old-gen­er­a­tion mech­an­ic­al guid­ance sys­tems used by today’s Minute­man 3.

“Hill Air Force Base ought to be very con­cerned about the cost pro­file of … re­pla­cing the Minute­man 3,” said Jef­frey Lewis, a nuc­le­ar-arms ex­pert at the James Mar­tin Cen­ter for Non­pro­lif­er­a­tion Stud­ies in Monterey, Cal­if. “Any­thing they do that drives that cost up or delays the abil­ity to start those pro­grams I think im­per­ils the whole ICBM force. There will come a point at which people will [say], ‘This is really ex­pens­ive and it’s go­ing to take a long time. Maybe we should just not do it and spend the money on the bomber in­stead.’”

In­dustry of­fi­cials are re­ceiv­ing mixed mes­sages from the Air Force about which dir­ec­tion it will take with the GBSD guid­ance sys­tem: pro­ceed­ing with the stalled ef­fort to be­gin sled test­ing in 2016 (had fund­ing con­tin­ued un­in­ter­rup­ted that test­ing would have be­gun last year), versus at­tempt­ing to in­clude the older Minute­man 3 tar­get­ing tech­no­logy in its hy­brid re­place­ment.

Those at­tend­ing a Ju­ly 16 brief­ing by the ICBM Sys­tem Dir­ect­or­ate at Hill Air Force Base on the res­ults of the Air Force ana­lys­is of al­tern­at­ives were told an in­crease in ac­cur­acy would, in fact, be needed in the new GBSD sys­tem. To at least some in the busi­ness com­munity, that seemed to im­ply that the sol­id state tech­no­logy largely de­fun­ded in fisc­al 2014 and 2015 would be key.

The Air Force de­clined a re­port­er’s re­quest for in­form­a­tion presen­ted at the “in­dustry day” event. Al­though pro­spect­ive de­fense con­tract­ors saw both secret and non-secret slides about how the Air Force an­ti­cip­ates pro­ceed­ing with the Minute­man 3 re­place­ment ef­fort, “an un­clas­si­fied ver­sion of the writ­ten brief­ing does not ex­ist for re­lease,” Lt. Col. Jared Yar­ring­ton, who heads Air Force Glob­al Strike Com­mand’s ICBM Re­quire­ments Di­vi­sion, told Nex­t­gov in a writ­ten re­sponse to ques­tions.

Des­pite the ser­vice’s dis­cus­sions of the ana­lys­is res­ults with in­dustry rep­res­ent­at­ives last month, Yar­ring­ton said that pending form­al ap­prov­al of the doc­u­ment by Hagel’s of­fice, “all ma­ter­i­als are pre-de­cision­al and not re­leas­able at this time.”

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