The Air Force’s program to acquire a new fleet of nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missiles, which fast became a one-horse race that Northrop Grumman [NOC] won, is a model for the sort of procurement ethos that will help the U.S. acquire new weapons as fast as China, the commander of U.S. nuclear forces said Monday.
“China can move fast, and in the end, we’re going to have to move equally as fast in order to pace that threat,” Adm. Charles Richard, commander of U.S. Strategic Command, said in a press conference from the Pentagon. “In the end, it is time for us to start getting some of our bureaucracy out of our way.”
Richard called the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD) competition, which ended this month with a nine-year, $13-billion missile prime contract for Northrop Grumman, “as a pathfinder in terms of how to achieve the old standard by a new way.”
In 2017, the Air Force started the GBSD program as a competition between Northrop Grumman and Boeing [BA], which built the silo-based Minuteman III nuclear-tipped missiles that GBSD will replace, starting in 2030 or so. The Air Force gave out three-year technology development contracts and let the companies loose to create competing designs, between which the service planned to choose in 2020.
But in 2019, Boeing threw up its hands and quit, complaining that Northrop Grumman’s in-house solid rocket propulsion business, the former Orbital-ATK, gave the company an insurmountable cost advantage by forcing Boeing to subcontract through Northrop Grumman for a premium price. Boeing tried to persuade the Air Force to force a partnership between the two companies, but the service passed on the idea, and Northrop Grumman never really acknowledged the overture in public.
On Sept. 8, the inevitable became the official: Northrop Grumman was locked in to develop and manufacture the first of the GBSD missiles. The Air Force plans to buy more than 650, including spares and test articles, but will deploy 400: the same number of missiles in the current Minuteman III fleet. The weapons will use a mixture of W87-0 and W87-1 warheads provided by the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA).
W87-0 will be an existing Minuteman III warhead adapted for use on GBSD after flight testing, the NNSA has said. W87-1 will be a replacement for the W78 warhead now in service in the Minuteman III fleet. W87-1 will be a new copy of the existing W87 design, only with a freshly cast plutonium pit — a nuclear-warhead’s fissile trigger. W87-0 will use existing pits.
The Air Force estimates GBSD will cost $100 billion or more into the 2080s or so. That does not include the $30 billion or so the NNSA will spend into the 2050s or so to build and operate a pair of pit factories at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico and the Savannah River Site in Aiken, S.C.