U.S. Strategic Command (STRATCOM) and U.S. Air Force leaders have often cited parts obsolescence for the 400 Boeing [BA] Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles as one of the reasons to develop and field the Northrop Grumman [NOC] Ground Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD), and Adm. Charles Richard, the STRATCOM commander, peeled back that onion in testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) on Apr. 20.
“I cannot deter with the leftovers of the Cold War forever into the future,” Richard said in response to a question from SASC Chairman Jack Reed (D-R.I.) on why the U.S. needs GBSD rather than a service life extension of the Minuteman III. “The ultimate authority on whether or not Minuteman III can be extended is the Secretary of the Air Force and the Chief of Staff of the Air Force, as judged by the Secretary of Defense so I’m not the ultimate authority on that. We have repeatedly reported to Congress why it’s not cost effective to do that, and, from my viewpoint, I’m not sure how they’re going to be able to do it at all. It is in the details, what they are doing to keep that weapon system functioning. That is a 70-years weapon system that I’m going to have to employ against 2030-level threats.”
“We are down to two of a particular type of switch that is required to go in the Launch Control Centers [LCCs],” Richard testified. “Nobody knows how to make it anymore. It’s obsolete. It’s not worth a company to put their effort into that. They’ve repeatedly been pulling rabbits out of the hat to work through those types of issues.”
The Air Force declined to specify the exact LCC switch that Richard mentioned. One such LCC switch, however, is made by the defunct Loral Corp.–now part of L3Harris Technologies [LHX]. Three Cooperative Launch Switches (CLS) and one Launch Control Panel (LCP) switch in LCCs have been needed to initiate the Minuteman III launch sequence under the LCCs’ Rapid Execution and Combat Retargeting (REACT) command and control system, which deployed in 1996 and began a service life extension a decade later. REACT replaced the Command Data Buffer (CDB) system.
Richard’s remarks to SASC on Apr. 20 came hours before the Pentagon announced that the Air Force Nuclear Weapons Center at Hill AFB, Utah had awarded Northrop Grumman a contract worth up to $2.3 billion until 2040 for sustainment of the Minuteman III propulsion system.
“The primary focus shall be to identify aging mechanism, anomalous behavior, and ensure any modifications or changes to the system which shall maintain and/or improve system-level performance,” DoD said in its contract awards on Apr. 20.
Northrop Grumman has been the prime contractor for Minuteman III propulsion systems, as Northrop Grumman-acquired companies have built and renovated such systems for the Minuteman III, which has three solid-propellant stages and a fourth stage liquid-propellant rocket engine.
Richard testified on Apr. 20 that, in addition to the parts obsolescence problems with the Minuteman III, a Minuteman III service life extension would not adequately address the cyber threat environment, given that the design of the Minuteman III was “before the invention of the Internet.”
Last month, Senate Appropriations Committee defense panel Chairman Jon Tester (D-Mont.) pledged to keep the Air Force GBSD program “on track,” while a former senior Pentagon official in the Obama administration said congressional support for GBSD was broad but not deep (Defense Daily, March 31).
Tester has supported the 30-year, $1-trillion nuclear modernization program started in 2016 by the Obama administration and continued, with minor additions, by the Trump administration.
The Biden administration said this month that it is continuing work on a nuclear posture review and that its fiscal 2022 budget request would support “ongoing nuclear modernization programs while ensuring that these efforts are sustainable,” per a White House budget summary.
At the SASC hearing on Apr. 20, Sen. Deb Fischer (R-Neb.) asked Richard what risks would come with relying too heavily on one leg of the nuclear triad, and Richard replied that, in reality, the U.S. no longer has a triad, but instead a dyad, due to the de-alerting of bombers as the result of the “peace dividend” after the end of the Cold War. Richard said that he has told Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin that, if the U.S. chose to end the ICBM leg of the triad, “I would request to re-alert the bombers.”
Some House Democrats, including House Armed Services Committee (HASC) Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.), have supported options short of fielding GBSD, including cutting or nixing the ICBM fleet, or delaying GBSD through renovating Minuteman III and pulling some deployed missiles from service to serve as test articles.
“The most responsive leg of the U.S. nuclear triad, Minuteman III was designed for only 10 years of service life,” Air Force Maj. William Russell, a spokesman for Air Force Global Strike Command (AFGSC), wrote in an Apr. 20 email to Defense Daily in response to questions on Minuteman III and GBSD. “It now has been on alert for 50 years, 24/7/365. Every single day, it is getting harder and harder to maintain due to the components and manufacturers which may no longer be in existence. There is no margin left to stretch MMIII further. Bluntly, because of old age, the subject matter experts who originally engineered the system are no longer around to re-create parts. This also applies to a majority of the original vendors. Missing vendors = missing parts, and few current manufacturers can still make parts with now-obsolete technology.”
“More importantly, the longer we wait to modernize, global competitors continue to upgrade their nuclear capabilities,” he wrote.
On Dec. 29, 1970, the 741st Strategic Missile Squadron at Minot AFB, N.D. became the first operational Minuteman III squadron, per the Air Force.