The Air Force expects to award a contract for its next generation intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) on schedule, if not earlier, Assistant Secretary for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics Will Roper said April 16.

Despite the service and contractors enacting new teleworking policies and other social distancing efforts related to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD) program is progressing as planned, Roper told reporters on a Thursday teleconference call.

The technology maturation and risk reduction (TMRR) phase of the program continues, Roper said, adding that he is “very hopeful” an engineering and manufacturing development (EMD) contract will be awarded ahead of its current estimated schedule, in the fourth quarter of fiscal year 2020. Northrop Grumman [NOC] is the sole bidder for the $25 million EMD contract after competitor Boeing [BA] quit the program in July 2019. Boeing and Northrop Grumman had each won TMRR contracts in 2017.

Roper did not specify how early he could see the contract being awarded, but said that one key element to the timeline was how much work could be completed on classified sections during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“GBSD is a program that has a large component of classified work, [and] that team is having to go in and maintain workforce in our … classified spaces,” he said. “So we’re watching very carefully to make sure that the installations are open to allow that work, because it is a program that you don’t easily send people home to do.”

Roper credited the large amount of digital engineering being performed on the GBSD program, which enables more streamlined data-sharing across the program’s components. He noted that while the Pentagon still requires acquisition programs to complete preliminary design reviews and critical design reviews with paper, “we could completely get rid of paper on that program.”

“Effectively the digital tools that are used that couple every component of the system, using these high-fidelity models that connect design, performance, assembly, even the maintenance, means you’re effectively doing a design review every single day,” he said.

The Air Force plans to procure more than 600 GBSD missiles, including spares and test units. It will begin fielding them around 2030 to replace the 1970s-era Minuteman III systems currently serving as one leg of the nuclear triad. Boeing was the prime contractor for Minuteman III, and has reserved the right to protest the competition or award.

The service requested $1.5 billion for GBSD engineering and development in the fiscal year 2021 presidential budget request, released in February. It intends to request an additional $12 billion for the program between 2022 and 2025, per service budget justification documents.

The service had to make prioritization calls in crafting its FY ’21 budget request, and not all of its desired modernization efforts made it through unscathed, Roper noted. Should Congress vote to lower the overall defense budget topline, more tough choices lie ahead; however, he doesn’t foresee GBSD as an area that could get cut.

“The nuclear triad and the strategic deterrence it provides us has just been a foundational bedrock in the world security that exists,” Roper said. “I think that if we have to take risk, it will have to be in other areas.”

“My worry, and concern, is less about any individual program in the nuclear triad; it’s more outside of it,” he continued. “Where will we find our bill payer?”