The Air Force’s top nuclear procurement officer on Monday positioned the service’s effort to build its next nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missile as a way to shore up the nuclear-industrial base for decades and create a weapon that arms control treaties can’t kill.
The Ground Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD), the first lot of which which prime Northrop Grumman
[NOC] is building under a $13-billion contract awarded in 2019, “is being built and will be fielded in full compliance with the New START treaty that is currently in place and will be adaptable enough to move forward with whatever form the New START treaty takes in the future,” Air Force Maj. Gen. Anthony Genatempo, commander of the Air Force Nuclear Weapons Center at Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque, N.M., said during a day-long virtual forum hosted by the Air Force Association’s Doolittle Leadership Center.
New START will expire in February 2026. The Biden administration and the Russian Federation agreed in February to extend the deal, which the Obama administration struck with Putin’s nominal predecessor, Dmitri Medvedev, in 2011.
The bilateral treaty limits the U.S. and Russia to no more than 1,550 warheads across 700 intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarine-launched ballistic missiles, and heavy bombers, while possessing no more than 800 deployed and non-deployed bombers, ICBM launchers, and submarine-launched ballistic missile launchers. Bombers count as single warheads, under the New START.
What a successor treaty might look like is uncertain. The Trump administration tried and failed to start negotiations to replace New START with a trilateral treaty that includes China. Beijing, which according to public data has a much smaller arsenal than what New START allows, has repeatedly said it will not join such a treaty.
Meanwhile on Monday, Genatempo also framed GBSD — which has what the Air Force calls a modular architecture that will allow contractors to add new capabilities to the missile like apps to an iPhone — as resilient enough to survive the influence of antinuclear policy pushers in Washington, who might bring their political influence to bear as the Biden administration conducts its nuclear posture review.
The review, due in January or so, a Biden official testified last week before the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee, could radically restructure U.S. nuclear forces, compared with the deployments envisioned in 2016. That was the year the Obama administration kicked off a 30-year, $1-trillion nuclear modernization regime that his administration agreed to in order to secure support for New START in Congress.
“We have a system that will be able to stay relevant regardless of the changes in posture or the administration and the political environment in the future,” Col. Jason Bartolomei, the Air Force’s GBSD senior materiel leader and upper and system program manager, said in another panel discussion at Monday’s Air Force Association event. The GBSD program will “set the conditions for a healthy industrial base ecosystem that’s going to last for decades.”
The Air Force plans to deploy GBSD around 2030 or so. The GBSD initial operational capability, a program management milestone rather than a hard date for putting a missile on alert, is 2029, the Air Force has said. The service plans to use the silo-based missile into the 2080s or so. Life cycle costs could reach $264 billion, according to government estimates.
The missile will initially use W87-0 warheads from the current fleet of Minuteman III missiles. Later, GBSD will pick up W87-1 warheads: essentially, copies of the current W78 warhead, but with a new plutonium-pit trigger that will keep the warhead’s first stage battle-ready for longer than the Air Force now plans to keep the missiles.
The service is buying more than 650 GBSD missiles but under New START limits would use only 400 of them at a time. They will replace the 400 deployed Minuteman III rockets. The first GBSD test flight is on the slate for Dec. 1, 2023, from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, Air Force Lt. Gen James Dawkins, the deputy chief of staff for strategic deterrence and nuclear integration, said last week.