U.S. Air Force Approves Concept for Future ICBM, Eyes Navy Collaboration

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A senior-level U.S. Air Force panel has approved a document that formally articulates the need for a new ground-based missile system to replace today’s nuclear-armed Minuteman 3 arsenal (See GSN, Feb. 10).

The future intercontinental ballistic missile might be either a modernized Minuteman or a completely new design, but one attribute appears increasingly certain: The ICBM will likely share an unprecedented number of “common” hardware and software components with a new Navy ballistic missile for basing on submarines, according to Defense Department officials.

There is even some talk of building identical missiles for Navy deployment at sea and Air Force fielding on land, though at this early date the odds appear against that for military and technical reasons.

Plans are for the Air Force’s new “ground-based strategic deterrent” to begin replacing today’s 450-missile Minuteman 3 force by 2030. 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 ICBMs in coming years.

The Air Force Requirements Oversight Council on May 17 signed off on an “initial capabilities document” for the future ICBM, according to Capt. Caroline Wellman, a service spokeswoman. Such military documents typically are kept secret, spelling out key attributes needed for military equipment, such as range, speed, and payload.

To proceed with an ICBM developmental effort, the Air Force must next vet the document through a multiservice review board, the Joint Requirements Oversight Council. That top-level Pentagon panel is chaired by the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and includes the No. 2 military officers from the Army, Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps.

Once armed with the joint board’s approval — anticipated sometime in roughly the next two to 12 months — the Air Force can begin work in fiscal 2013 on a more detailed assessment of technical options. The Obama administration requested $11.7 million to launch the Analysis of Alternatives after the new spending year commences on Oct. 1 (See GSN, Feb. 14).

The analytical work is to continue in fiscal 2014 at a cost of $9.4 million, laying the groundwork for a White House decision on how the Minuteman 3 force — first fielded in 1970 — should be replaced.

As the Air Force prepares for the Analysis of Alternatives, “we are looking at basing modes. We are looking at affordability,” said Maj. Gen. William Chambers, the service’s assistant chief of staff for strategic deterrence and nuclear integration. “We are looking at the right — and the most compatible — warhead.”

Speaking at a May 24 breakfast event on Capitol Hill, the Air Force two-star general noted it was early in the developmental process and said the future system’s technical attributes will “become more clear” once the two-year Analysis of Alternatives is complete.

Still, some hints have surfaced that could make the Minuteman follow-on missile interesting to policy wonks, technology junkies and maybe even some in the broader American public.

For one thing, the Pentagon’s 2010 Nuclear Posture Review — a wide-ranging assessment of the nation’s deterrence policy, forces and readiness — said the Defense Department would consider “new modes of ICBM basing that enhance survivability and further reduce any incentives for prompt launch.”

That might mean the replacement missile could be made mobile, with a capability for transport on trucks or trains, according to defense experts. In a crisis, the ICBMs could be dispersed or hidden, making them more survivable against potential enemy attack and less likely to trigger a preemptive nuclear launch by either side.

Today’s Minuteman 3 missiles are based in fixed underground launch silos in five states: Colorado, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, and Wyoming.

Whether the U.S. public is ready to embrace nuclear-armed missiles on its roads or railways is not entirely clear, following heated debate over similar concepts during the 1980s. On the other hand, mobility could make the ICBM force more secure and potentially serve as a basis for additional nuclear arsenal reductions — initiatives that could draw popular support.

New ICBM basing schemes might also include non-mobile options, such as “dense pack” deployment once contemplated — and rejected — for the since-retired Peacekeeper missile under President Reagan, according to one senior Defense official interviewed last month. Under this concept, silos would be closely spaced and theoretically made more challenging to destroy in an all-out attack.

Another basing alternative could be to maintain some underground silos with ballistic missiles in them while others randomly remain empty, creating a “shell game” that similarly could complicate enemy targeting and help deter a massive nuclear strike against U.S. forces.

“We could give [adversary] folks lots of aim points, which keeps your stability up,” said the senior official, who cited political and military sensitivities surrounding nuclear weapon programs as the reason for requesting anonymity in this article. “But they may be targeting an empty hole.”

There is also some early debate over whether to give the future ICBM a capacity for delivering multiple warheads. This comes despite a decision announced in the 2010 posture review to winnow down — or “de-MIRV,” in Pentagon parlance — each Minuteman from a maximum three warheads to one per missile.

The Nuclear Posture Review also alluded to retaining an ability to increase warheads on strategic platforms, as a hedge against the possibility — however remote — of a resurgent threat to the nation.

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

Although the posture review said that “preference will be given to upload capacity for bombers and strategic submarines,” some Defense officials say the Pentagon will also likely move to preserve this option on its future ICBM.

“I think it’s clear” that the Pentagon will “keep a MIRVed capability on the missile,” even if the ICBM continues to be typically deployed with a single warhead, the senior official told Global Security Newswire. A latent capacity to upload, if ever needed, would serve as insurance against “that resurgent threat, that unknown future that you have to worry about,” the official said.

There are technical and cost incentives to include a multi-warhead option in the missile design, according to the senior official.

“It doesn’t take that much, if you build [an upload capacity] in from the beginning,” the official said. “Now, if you have a missile that’s only designed for singlets and now you want to reMIRV it, ouch. You’ve got a problem. It’s just money, but it’s … big money.”

Affordability will play a central role in the process to determine what technology replaces today’s land-based missile arsenal, this and several other officials emphasized.

A vocal group of lawmakers — mostly comprising Republicans — has suggested that plans for modernizing U.S. nuclear weapon systems should be spared from the budget axe that has affected many of the Pentagon’s conventional warfare procurement efforts (See GSN, April 20).

The 2011 Budget Control Act mandates a roughly $450 billion cut in defense spending over the next decade. That amount could more than double under the sequester process if lawmakers do not by the end of this year reverse the legislation’s demand for $1.2 trillion in additional government-wide reductions.

The senior defense official said that Pentagon personnel are operating under an assumption that cost discipline must be maintained across the board, to include nuclear weapon programs.

“Affordability is now a key parameter in every [Analysis of Alternatives] we do,” the official said. “The days of ‘it must be funded’ are over.”

Those suggesting in Pentagon meetings that nuclear efforts be exempted from budget-cutting considerations “get laughed right out of the room,” the official added.

The search for savings in tightening defense budgets has prompted the Navy and Air Force to discuss new ways of combining efforts. That has included new exploration of the potential for cross-service work on future ballistic missile development and procurement — largely a new frontier after decades of building and buying nuclear systems separately.

The Navy currently deploys 1,152 nuclear warheads aboard 288 Trident D-5 ballistic missiles, fielded on a fleet of 14 Ohio-class submarines, according to a 2012 profile of U.S. nuclear forces compiled recently by atomic-force experts Hans Kristensen and Robert Norris.

The service plans to continue fielding the D-5 missiles on a newly designed submarine in coming decades, but anticipates eventually replacing its ballistic missile with an updated weapon (see GSN, March 30).

Navy Rear Adm. Terry Benedict, who directs the Navy Strategic Systems Programs office, has led the charge on collaboration. In January, he reportedly told Lt. Gen. James Kowalski, who heads the Air Force Global Strike Command, that potential areas of commonality between his D-5 replacement and the air service’s Minuteman follow-on could include a number of major components:

  • Strategic guidance systems — the technology that directs a missile precisely from Point A to Point B;

  • Rocket-motor and propulsion systems — which allow a missile to blast off and fly fast;

  • Infrastructure and support equipment — to help control, monitor, and maintain the weapon system;

  • Strategic industrial capacity — to sustain a national ability to produce ballistic missiles and supply them with spare parts.

“In today’s budget environment we must ensure that we are not unnecessarily duplicating effort,” Benedict is said to have told his Air Force counterpart in an early 2012 letter.

Kowalski did not reply to Benedict in writing for more than two months, but is said to have told the two-star admiral in an April missive that the two services must “leverage one another’s efforts” and “be in sync from nose cone to nozzle,” according to defense sources.

In May 10 remarks on Capitol Hill, Kowalski appeared convinced of the merits of joint work on the two future ballistic missiles — as well as, perhaps, in keeping today’s Minuteman 3 ICBMs functional.

“I need to replace the missile guidance set on the Minuteman 3,” the general said during a breakfast event. “I think Terry’s going to need a new missile guidance set. I know that the follow-on to the Minuteman 3 — the ground-based strategic deterrent — is going to need a new missile guidance set.”

“Does the nation need to go out and buy three different missile guidance sets?” Kowalski continued. “Or is there some way we can work this where we buy one missile guidance set — or at least have common components — so that we’re not paying the same bill three times over?”

The Air Force and Navy are also working with the Energy Department’s semi-autonomous National Nuclear Security Administration to develop a joint fuse for ICBMs and submarine-launched ballistic missiles, as well as a common modernization package for warheads, the W-78 and W-88, respectively (See GSN, Sept. 14, 2010, and Jan. 7, 2010).

Sharing a single airframe for both missiles could be a stretch, though, Chambers said in response to an audience question during his appearance last month. Others agreed that the two services would likely have different parameters for the length and diameter of the missiles, and disparities in propulsion requirements might prove to be insurmountable.

“Given the two very different platforms, our charter is to pursue maximum amount of commonality, but it’s going to be very difficult to be identical,” Chambers said.