• Boeing, Northrop, Lockheed are all vying for the next ICBM
  • Cost previously set at $62.3 billion fuels debate over triad

The Pentagon is preparing to approve development and production of a new intercontinental ballistic missile, opening competition between three top defense contractors and rekindling debate over whether the U.S. can afford to modernize its triad of nuclear weapons.

Frank Kendall, the Defense Department’s top weapons buyer, has convened a closed session of the Defense Acquisition Board for Wednesday to review the Air Force’s acquisition strategy and updated cost estimates for replacing Minuteman III nuclear-armed missiles that have sat in silos for almost 50 years.

The Air Force last year estimated the program would cost $62.3 billion for research and development and production of as many as 400 missiles as well as command and control systems and infrastructure. Lockheed Martin Corp., Boeing Co. and Northrop Grumman Corp. are all competing to build the new ICBMs.

The other arms of the nation’s land-air-sea nuclear triad also are scheduled to be modernized: Northrop defeated a Lockheed-Boeing team in October for the right to build a new bomber that can carry nuclear weapons, a project valued at as much as $80 billion. The Navy is planning to replace its Ohio-class nuclear-armed submarines through a production program now estimated at $122 billion.

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Updated estimates for the cost of the missiles have been prepared by the Air Force and and the Pentagon’s independent cost assessment office but haven’t yet been released. The Navy is also updating its submarine estimate for a review later this year.

The new forecasts are likely to add to the debate over whether coming administrations will be able to afford what defense analysts call a “bow wave” of costs converging in the next decade for the new nuclear systems as well as nine Air Force conventional systems and plans for increased construction of naval vessels such as a second Ford-class aircraft carrier.

The ICBM “milestone marks the official beginning of the technology development stage where contracts will be awarded and spending” will “begin to ramp up,” from about $75 million this year to $1.6 billion in 2021, Todd Harrison, a defense budget analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said in an e-mail.

Arms control organizations and some Pentagon officials say the nuclear triad’s modernization could cost as much as $1 trillion over 30 years if research, procurement, operations and support are included.

By way of comparison, Pentagon analysts estimate that Lockheed’s F-35 jet, the military’s most expensive program, may cost as much as $1.12 trillion over 60 years to support.

‘Costs in Context’

“It’s also important to put these costs in context,” Harrison said. “The U.S. will likely spend more than $20 trillion over the next 30 years on defense, so $1 trillion is only a small fraction of that,” Harrison said.

Still, the bow wave’s cost is likely to force the Air Force to delay the ICBM program or cancel it in favor of modifying the existing missiles because the service has higher priorities, predicted Kingston Reif, an analyst with the Arms Control Association.

The Pentagon review “reflects the current department and service commitment to the program, but it’s far from a point of no return,” Reif said in an e-mail.

Admiral Cecil Haney, head of the U.S. Strategic Command, told a House Armed Services Committee panel last month the new missile program is necessary because a comprehensive nuclear deterrence “requires us to have a complex problem for an adversary.”

“If that program is delayed it really puts the one leg of the triad at significant risk” from “a reliability standpoint,” Haney said.

The Air Force plans to award two 36-month contracts by September 2017 for the ICBM’s technology development phase and then one contract in about 2020 for engineering, manufacturing, development and first five production lots, Leah Bryant, spokeswoman for the Air Force Nuclear Weapons Center, said in an e-mail. The program is planning to offer competition for numerous aspects of the missile program, she added.

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