The Secretary of the Air Force would have to inform Congress of any schedule slips of one month or more in the initial operational capability (IOC) for the Northrop Grumman [NOC] LGM-35A Sentinel within three months of learning of such delays, according to the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) Strategic Forces’ draft for the panel’s section of the fiscal 2024 national defense authorization bill.

The panel’s draft also proposes making nuclear, command, control, and communications (NC3) a major force program for fiscal 2025 through fiscal 2030 under Section 222(b) of United States Code Title 10.

Almost two years ago, HASC noted the “age, complexity, and dispersed nature of the legacy NC3 enterprise” (Defense Daily, June 30, 2021).

The HASC Strategic Forces panel’s draft fiscal 2024 mark would require the Secretary of the Air Force to brief the congressional defense committees quarterly on Sentinel–briefings that would start within six months of the enactment of the fiscal 2024 National Defense Authorization Act and continue through Jan. 1, 2029.

DoD has targeted Sentinel for IOC in May 2029.

“Not later than 30 days after the Secretary of the Air Force becomes aware of an event that is expected to delay, by more than one fiscal quarter, the date on which Sentinel missile achieves initial operational capability (as set forth in the integrated master schedule), the secretary shall submit notice of such delay to the congressional defense committees; and include with such notice an explanation of the factors causing such delay; and a plan to prevent or minimize the duration of such delay,” according to the HASC Strategic Forces subcommittee’s draft language.

While Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall has hinted of possible Sentinel delays in his congressional testimony, the service has not been transparent in answering questions in an unclassified setting on whether the program is on time or has slipped significantly.

To add to the confusion, Air Force Gen. Thomas Bussiere, the head of Air Force Global Strike Command, recently made a seemingly contradictory statement that, while “there will be delays in different parts of the program,” he is confident that Sentinel will meet the IOC target (Defense Daily, May 4).

DoD acquisition chief William LaPlante, in consultation with Air Force acquisition chief Andrew Hunter, signed an Acquisition Decision Memorandum (ADM) on Sentinel on March 27.

“The ADM approved prudent actions to reduce schedule and transition risk, specifically, accelerating the procurement of test assets needed for Initial Operational Test and Evaluation and Operational Weapon System Article ground assets,” DoD said last month. “The Sentinel program continues to make progress. In fact, the program has started critical design reviews and successfully performed its first open air rocket motor static test. The department’s top priority is delivering the weapon system to meet the warfighter’s need date and we will continue to monitor the schedule.”

In March, Northrop Grumman said that it had recently completed the first full-scale static test of a Sentinel solid rocket motor at the company’s test facility in Promontory, Utah, as the company readies for the first flight of a Sentinel prototype this year (Defense Daily, March 16).

Sentinel features a three-stage booster rocket. Northrop Grumman, which has an in-house solid rocket motor business, will make the missile’s first- and second-stage solid motors.

In April, Kendall told HASC that it will be a

challenge for Sentinel to reach IOC on time (Defense Daily, Apr. 27). Kendall is not permitted to make decisions on Sentinel because of his previous consulting work for Northrop Grumman.

During the April HASC hearing, Kendall mentioned LaPlante’s ADM adjustment to Sentinel and said the program “is trying to address all the possible ways that the program could get in trouble, not just the ones currently on the critical path, and trying to move forward as efficiently as possible.”

A Defense Department study sent to Congress last September indicated a possible 10-month delay in the Sentinel development effort, according to published reports that did not name nor cite the study. Air Force Brig. Gen. Ty Neuman, the service’s director of concepts, said in February that Northrop is still on track to perform the full-scale inaugural flight test this year.

The Air Force’s estimated acquisition cost for the 634 Sentinel missiles is $95.8 billion, while estimated life-cycle costs into the 2070s are nearly $264 billion.

Selected Acquisition Report (SAR) released last year said that the Sentinel program, previously known as the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent, has had schedule difficulties with cleared personnel staffing, classified information technology infrastructure, and booster electronics development.

The Government Accountability Office’s (GAO) newly released annual weapons assessment echoed the SAR released last year.

“Sentinel is behind schedule due to staffing shortfalls, delays with clearance processing, and classified information technology infrastructure challenges,” according to GAO. “Additionally, the program is experiencing supply chain disruptions, leading to further schedule delays. The prime contractor is working on multiple supply chain mitigations to address the issue.” The Air Force and Northrop Grumman are reviewing the program and may revise its schedule, GAO said.