The US Air Force announced Monday that it has awarded two defense companies—Boeing and Northrop Grumman—each a $359 million contract to design new, land-based, nuclear Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs), CNBC reports. The companies will compete in what the Pentagon calls the “technology maturation and risk reduction” phase of development, which CNBC describes as the “preliminary design” phase.
The development of the new missiles is part of the US Military’s Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD) intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) weapon system program.
A third potential contractor, Lockheed Martin, has dropped out of the running. The narrowing of the design-competition field marks a step forward for the GBSD program, notes Jefferies analyst Howard Rubel, per CNBC.
Said Rubel: ”You went from three competitors to two. You went from what I call broad concepts to now, two competing designers, who will come up with an industrialization concept that will…probably have some testing done to prove certain points along the way.”
The contract also represents a “win” for the Boeing’s defense operation, Rubel says, pointing out that Boeing lost a long-range strike bomber contract to Northrop, and has faced setbacks on an aerial tanker project.
Boeing hasn’t selected subcontractors yet, and Northrop has released just a partial list. Rubel told CNBC he expects Orbital ATK and Aerojet Rocketdyne, two manufacturers of rocket motors, to “split the propulsion work in some fashion.”
The new missiles, which the military expects to begin producing and deploying in the late 2020s, may replace the United States’ current nuclear ICBM, dubbed Minuteman III, the development of which Boeing led in the 1970s.
“Things just wear out, and it becomes more expensive to maintain them than to replace them,” Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson said of the aging missiles in a statement. “We need to cost-effectively modernize.”
China and Russia are both modernizing their nuclear fleets, and North Korea is becoming a credible nuclear threat to the US and others.
Still, some experts debate whether the GBSD project is cost-effective and whether modernization of the country’s land-based missiles is an effective defense strategy.
The Air Force originally estimated the cost of “acquiring” the new missiles at $62 billion, but now expects costs between $85 billion and $140 billion. Per CNBC, Reif Kingston, director of disarmament and threat reduction policy for the ACA, called the pricing information on which the Air Force and the Pentagon have based the fiscal projections “old and incomplete.”
“We [i.e. the US] haven’t built a new intercontinental ballistic missile in decades. As the program proceeds, they will have start to get a better sense of the costs. But at this point, there’s a lot of uncertainty, and the Air Force’s [first] estimate [of $62 billion] by all accounts is unrealistically low,” Kingston told CNBC.
Kingston also disputes Wilson’s claim that the development of new missiles would be cheaper than the continued maintenance of Minuteman III. At least in the short term, he says, there is an economic reason to delay GBSD.
“Sustaining the Minuteman III for a period of time (say 10-15 years) beyond 2030 would be cheaper than GBSD over that period,” he said. “The case for deferring a decision on GBSD and pursuing another life extension of the Minuteman III is strong.”
Were the Pentagon to defer the development of Minuteman III replacements, Kingston concedes, the nation’s supply of land-based ICBMs would indeed diminish. “A smaller force,” however, “would not diminish the overall strength and credibility of the U.S. nuclear deterrent,” said Kingston.
The US currently deploys a “nuclear triad”: a combination of land, sea, and air weapons.
Some critics of the GBSD project say nuclear land missiles are not as effective in a defense capacity as nuclear bombs and torpedoes. Air and sea weapons, such critics argue, are more suited to dispersion and avoidance of detection than land weapons.
As part of what CNBC calls a “nuclear posturing review,” the Trump administration will examine whether the triad remains an efficient strategy.
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