TechSetbacks and Surges in Cost Plague the Sentinel Missile Program

Setbacks and Surges in Cost Plague the Sentinel Missile Program

Minuteman III
Minuteman III
Images source: © US Air Force
6:30 PM EDT, March 11, 2024

Moreover, the deployment of the Sentinel is now expected to take about two years longer than initially planned. It is currently projected that the initial operational readiness of the LGM-35A missiles will be achieved by June 2030. This timeline is somewhat acceptable, given that the USAF's non-extendable deadline is September 2030. However, these plans may soon become obsolete.

In September 2020, the GBSD was estimated to cost 95.8 billion dollars. At present, there's little optimism that costs will stay below 131 billion dollars. Bloomberg now cites this figure as the official value of the program. Additionally, this cost is likely to rise further, with more accurate figures anticipated in the summer, following a GBSD program review. Since 2016, the program's expenses have been on a steady climb. The current increase of at least 37% in costs is primarily attributed to the economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic and inflation spurred by the Russian-Ukrainian conflict.

The development has been further complicated by recurring issues related to the construction of silos and alert facilities (Missile Alert Facility), including underground launch control centers and auxiliary buildings (Launch Control Support Building). Contrary to appearances, this is no easy feat. The facilities not only require expansion on the surface but must also be modernized to meet 21st-century standards.

And all these upgrades are costly. Critical among them is the need to lay entirely new wiring, spanning more than 7,456 miles. Moreover, the project involves installing new communication systems, acquiring fifty-six new wheeled transport-loading vehicles, and constructing missile storage and technical service rooms.

According to the Pentagon, the acquisition cost per Sentinel unit stood at about 118 million dollars in 2020, encompassing development work, production, and orders. This figure has since risen to approximately 162 million dollars.

Sentinel's vision in flight
Sentinel's vision in flight© Northrop Grumman

The planned replacement of the Minuteman III, beginning in 2027 and now rescheduled to 2031, highlights the difficulties facing the new weapons system. It's not just grappling with significant delays but also facing steep cost escalations. These cost increases have been labeled as "critical" by Americans.

In response, the air force was legally obligated to inform Congress about the GBSD program's violation of the Nunn-McCurdy Act, triggered by estimated cost increases exceeding 15%. An increase beyond 30 percentage points represents a "significant" breach, while anything above this is deemed a "critical" violation. The USAF is expected to deliver a current cost analysis by the summer of 2024.

The air force intends to acquire 659 new LGM-35A Sentinel ballistic missiles and upgrade 450 existing launch facilities, which currently house 400 Minutemans III. The program also aims to modernize 400 underground silos and associated infrastructure. The Sentinels are earmarked for deployment at F.E. Warren, Minot, and Malmstrom Air Force Bases.

Plans are in place to achieve initial operational capability for the first nine units by June 2029. An USAF spokesperson noted that this deadline could be pushed back by up to two years. The full operational readiness of 400 missiles, planned for 2036, is also under scrutiny, though the extended timeline may offer some leeway. The GBSD, as the Department of Defense's most critical modernization initiative, has garnered significant attention and support from Congress, which seems to ensure the program's continuation.

"The Sentinel is absolutely essential for our nuclear deterrence's future," stated Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee Mike Rogers. "I am committed to vigorously overseeing the program and ensuring that the air force addresses cost overruns while continuing its development."

Despite concerns voiced by the USAF in November, including a statement of worry over escalating costs from secretary of the air force Frank Kendall, progress remains challenging. Kendall emphasizes the necessity of preserving the program, ensuring the timely readiness of the Sentinel to replace aging ballistic missiles. Failure is not seen as an option.

Financial hurdles are compounded by delays due to staffing shortages, permit processing challenges, and issues with non-public information technology infrastructure. The program has also suffered from supply chain disruptions, leading to further postponements.

Yet, amidst these setbacks, there's a ray of hope. On January 16, Northrop Grumman announced the successful completion of the Sentinel's two-stage rocket engine's first full static test at the Arnold Engineering Development Complex at Arnold Air Force Base in Tullahoma, Tennessee. Conducted in a vacuum chamber to simulate upper atmosphere and space conditions, this milestone, followed by another successful test on March 2, 2023, marks a crucial step forward for the program.

In what promises to be a pivotal year, the GBSD is poised for significant developments, including a Critical Design Review and the inaugural trial launch of the Sentinel's test version. These milestones will play a vital role in shaping the United States' deterrent capabilities until 2075.

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