The U.S. Department of Defense’s nuclear posture review is looking at whether the schedule for replacing the three legs of the aging nuclear triad should be revised, a Pentagon official said Aug. 3.

Asked whether the Air Force should speed up the land-based leg, the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD), Air Force Gen. Paul Selva, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, replied that “part of the questions the nuclear posture review is going to ask is, do we have the sequence of the replacement and modernization right, and GBSD is a critical part of that conversation.”

Air Force Gen. Paul Selva, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff
Air Force Gen. Paul Selva, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, speaks at a Capitol Hill event on Aug. 3, 2017.

The Pentagon is on track to report the review’s findings to President Donald Trump by year’s end, Selva said.

Selva’s comments to reporters follow those made in June by Air Force Gen. John Hyten, the head of U.S. Strategic Command, who advocated accelerating triad modernization (Defense Daily, June 20).

The Air Force plans to begin deploying GBSD in the late 2020s and the new, nuclear-capable B-21 bomber in the mid-2020s. But GBSD’s predecessor, the Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), is already more than 40 years old, and the B-52 bomber is about 55 years old.

Northrop Grumman [NOC] is the B-21’s prime contractor. For GBSD, Boeing [BA], Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin [LMT] have submitted bids, and the Air Force intends to award up to two technology maturation and risk reduction contracts in the current quarter.

To replace its Ohio-class nuclear-armed ballistic missile submarine, the Navy has a requirement to conduct the first patrol of the new Columbia-class submarine in fiscal year 2031, and “there’s no delay left in the schedule,” Selva said at a Capitol Hill event sponsored by the Air Force Association’s Mitchell Institute.

General Dynamics [GD] Electric Boat is Columbia’s prime contractor and Huntington Ingalls Industries [HII] Newport News Shipbuilding has a secondary role.

Selva indicated that the nuclear review is exploring a wide range of options.

“Everything’s on the table,” he said. “We’ve looked at conservative strategic approaches to radical new approaches. We’re going to find the best set of recommendations to give the president the options to maintain our strategic deterrent capacity against Russia, China and emerging nuclear powers,” such as Iran and North Korea.

Selva explained that while North Korea has shown it can build a rocket that can fly as far as an ICBM, it remains unclear whether Pyongyang has mastered other technologies required to hit the United States. Those technologies include guidance and stability control, which would prevent the rocket from breaking up; a re-entry vehicle that could survive the stresses of an ICBM shot; and a nuclear weapon that could fit on and survive on an ICBM.

Selva acknowledged that replacing all three legs will strain DoD’s finances. While about 3.5 percent of the defense budget is currently spent on the nuclear force, buying new systems will push that figure to just over 6 percent. But he argued that the effort is unavoidable.

“We will face some stark choices,” Selva said. “We will have to make them. But if you believe my first proposition that nuclear deterrence is the number one mission of our Department of Defense, that nuclear weapons are the only existential threat to the existence of our nation, how can we not go down this path?”

Asked about space, Selva expressed concern about industry’s ability to deliver satellite constellations in a timely manner.

“We’re horrible at this,” he said. “The last number I heard is 144 months [or 12 years] to deliver a new class of satellite. That’s nuts.”