NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — Sentinel, the next nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missile, is a “real program,” a senior executive with the rocket’s prime contractor said here Wednesday at an industry conference. 

“Just yesterday we announced … the casting for the first and the second stage [Sentinel rocket] motors,” James Kowalski, vice president of government programs at Northrop Grumman, said in a panel discussion at the Air and Space Forces Association’s 2022 Air, Space & Cyber Conference. 

Kowalski referred to Northrop’s manufacture in Promontory, Utah, of inert rocket stages: proof-of-concept hardware that will not be launched but did, the Falls Church-based company wrote in

a press release this week, prove that the company’s rocket manufacturing techniques are working as intended.

“So a lot of times, until you actually see something fielded, a lot of people are not really sure if it’s a real program. I assure you, GBSD is a real program,” Kowalski said, using an old acronym for the program that stands for Ground Based Strategic Deterrent.

Sentinel, the replacement for Boeing’s Minuteman III missiles, was scheduled to make its first test flight in December of 2023. The missile will initially be armed with W87-0 warheads provided by the Department of Energy National Nuclear Security Administration’s (NNSA) Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California. 

The warheads will come from the Minuteman III fleet and be adapted for use on the new missiles when the first of those are put into silos around 2030. Eventually, the Sentinel fleet will mix in W87-1 warheads: newly manufactured copies of Minuteman’s existing W78 warhead, but with brand new plutonium pit cores to be cast at NNSA’s Los Alamos National Laboratory starting in fiscal year 2024.

The Air Force in 2020 awarded Northrop a nine-year GBSD engineering and manufacturing development contract worth about $13 billion, under which the company will produce the first of more than 660 planned missiles. The delivery system will cost more than $250 billion over its decades-long deployment, the service has said.

“The contract was let in I think September of [20]20,” Kowalski said here Wednesday. “Seven months after that, they completed the initial baseline review of the program and seven months after that, they were doing the first case windings on the first stage rocket motor.”

Northrop, which in 2018 became a vertically integrated rocket powerhouse after acquiring Orbital ATK of Dulles, Va., won the Sentinel contract from the Air Force in a one-horse race after Boeing quit the Air Force’s competition over what the longtime intercontinental ballistic missiles prime said was an unfair competitive advantage. 

At the 2019 Air, Space & Cyber Conference, just before the Air Force awarded the Sentinel contract and a day after Northrop publicly announced it was teaming with practically every big aerospace company except Boeing on the missile, Frank McCall, then Boeing’s director of strategic deterrence systems called the media together for a longshot pitch to the service: force Northrop and Boeing to combine their proposals for Sentinel and continue the program as a joint prime.

The Air Force did not bite and Boeing wound up ceding another leg of the nuclear triad to its rival.