The Air Force plans to release a concept of operations (CONOPS) and a draft request for proposals (RFP) for the estimated $62.3 billion Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD) as early as September, Defense Daily sister publication Nuclear Security and Deterrence (NS&D) Monitor has learned.

The service then in January is expected to award two parallel nonexclusive teaming contracts to carry the program through the first two phases of its development. Air Force officials had previously said they would likely award multiple contracts at GBSD’s outset.

The Air Force test launches a Minuteman III ICBM in September 2010. Photo: Air Force.
The Air Force test launches a Minuteman III ICBM in September 2010. Photo: Air Force.

According to several industry officials, the service is subsequently expected to down-select to one contractor for the third and final acquisition phase—procurement—which is expected to berth a full force of 400 ICBMs by approximately 2030.

The Air Force prefers the two-to-one pre-procurement down-select to chart GBSD development, but the service’s assistant secretary for acquisition must sign off on the plan before it moves forward. The service declined to comment to NS&D Monitor about its acquisition strategy for GBSD.

The news comes as all options are reportedly being considered within an ongoing full-scale review by military brass of the future posture and role of the U.S. nuclear enterprise, including the option of eliminating the 55-year-old ICBM leg of the triad.

According to a senior military official, Pentagon officials have been considering this option for at least two months, but industry officials say the Air Force has remained committed to GBSD following President Barack Obama’s $75 million fiscal 2016 budget request for the new start program. The Future Years Defense Program (FYDP) has programmed $945 million for it.

“It’s moving; it’s real,” said one industry official about Air Force action on GBSD.

Pressed on July 29 whether there were any current internal military discussions about cutting the ICBM leg of the nuclear triad, Lt. Gen. James Kowalski, outgoing deputy commander of U.S. Strategic Command (USSTRATCOM), said: “Not among responsible adults.”

Asked in May about any possible plans to downscale to a nuclear dyad, Defense Department spokesman Army Lt. Col. Joe Sowers told NS&D Monitor in an email: “There is no ongoing review of our nuclear forces that is considering eliminating ICBMs or any other leg of the nuclear triad.”

According to two industry officials, parallel nonexclusive teaming agreements—which are structured to allow subcontractors to work under more than one prime contractor—would make sense for GBSD, mainly because there are few defense contractors with proven track records of manufacturing propulsion systems. Propulsion experts Orbital ATK [OA] and Aerojet Rocketdyne [AJRD] are involved in the ICBM business.  

So far, companies including Boeing [BA], Lockheed Martin [LMT], Northrop Grumman [NOC], Draper Laboratory, Honeywell [HON], General Dynamics [GD], Raytheon [RTN], Orbital ATK, BAE Systems and Aerojet Rocketdyne have expressed interest in the program’s RFI released in January.

Several industry officials have expressed concern that the Air Force has not yet released a CONOPS for GBSD, which two industry officials said they originally expected by the spring. “You don’t have a concept of operations, defined and on the street, so that’s challenging. Yet you want contractors to take their stockholders’ money and put a lot of it in to design solutions that have yet to be solidified,” one contractor said.

But if the GBSD concept matures, the Air Force would likely opt for an ICBM replacement that recapitalizes the existing Minuteman 3 silo infrastructure, one industry official told NS&D Monitor. “From what I’m hearing, that’s the most probable,” the official said. “I think the real estate for the silos is what they’re looking at—to retrofit, modernize, etcetera.”

Kowalski referred questions about whether the military will adopt a new ICBM silo infrastructure to the Air Force, but he touted the existing 40-plus-year-old nuclear command and control (NC2) system.

“There is a communication pathway that’s in place,” he said. “It uses hardened inter-site cables (HICS), so it uses an older technology. It’s reliable technology. The Air Force is doing a number of studies, as I understand it, as to whether or not that infrastructure will survive long enough to last long enough through the life of the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent, so from that perspective, we work with them on the requirements, but the solution that comes up, really, is dependent on the acquisition community.”

Some officials have trumpeted the reliability of the buried nationwide HICS network, which Maj. Gen. Garrett Harencak, Air Force assistant chief of staff for strategic deterrence and nuclear integration, in January said is part of an NC2 architecture that is almost impossible to hack.

The Pentagon last summer completed an analysis of alternatives (AoA) for the GBSD, which apparently resulted in three options to update the system: silo capitalization option, a “baseline” option that would extend Minuteman 3’s life through 2075, and a “hybrid” option that would mix existing silo infrastructure with road-mobile ICBMs. Arms Control Today originally reported those options in an article earlier this month.

USSTRATCOM chief Adm. Cecil Haney, during a July 29 media availability at the 2015 Strategic Command Deterrence Symposium, declined to detail specifics of the AoA, which is pending approval by the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD), but he did say USSTRATCOM is exploring a “deliberate” requirements process to look at a “variety of options” for the planned Minuteman 3 follow-on.

“[T]his is part of what we have to go through to make sure, again, that when we design something and build it and procure it, that we can have, hopefully, the same success our predecessors had,” Haney said. “The first principle is we have to have that responsive capability that our intercontinental ballistic missiles provide us today, and as we look at that, we have to make sure what we end up with what will be a system of systems that is able to address the threats well into the future,” Haney said.

Minot, F.E. Warren, and Malmstrom AFBs currently house all the nation’s ICBM silos. The Air Force is downscaling from its previous posture of 450 ICBMs to 400, in accordance with the U.S.-Russian New START treaty.

NS&D Monitor last month reported the Air Force’s preliminary GBSD cost estimate, which covers fiscal 2015 to 2044 for development, procurement, and military construction (MILCON). The Air Force Nuclear Weapons Center’s (AFNWC’s) ICBM System Program Office (SPO) completed this draft estimate—its most recent for the planned Minuteman 3 follow-on—in February, Air Force spokesman Ed Gulick told NS&D Monitor.

The overall draft estimate outlines projections for GBSD’s three major components, encompassing $48.5 billion for flight systems, $6.9 billion for weapon system command and control (WSC2), and another $6.9 billion for infrastructure. The numbers reflect “initial” WSC2 and infrastructure estimates not included in the GBSD AoA completed last summer, along with an “updated” flight systems estimate, according to Gulick.

The ICBM SPO’s draft projection also specifies estimates for the research and development and procurement phases of each GBSD component. The draft outlines $35.5 billion for procurement and $13 billion for R&D of flight systems, $3.7 billion for procurement and $3.2 billion for R&D of WSC2, and $5.9 billion for procurement, $0.7 billion for MILCON, and $0.3 billion for R&D of weapons infrastructure.

Although the CONOPS and draft RFP for GBSD could be released as early as September, at least one industry official expects their release as late as the end of December, the month before the program’s first milestone—the technology maturation and risk reduction phase—is expected to start.

DoD last week announced that AFNWC awarded BAE a $11.1 million contract modification, which will effectively extend the company’s role as integration support contractor (ISC) for the Minuteman 3 on to GBSD for at least one year.

BAE has worked as Minuteman 3 ISC through a $534.9 million contract since July 2013 under the Future ICBM Sustainment and Acquisition Construct (FISAC), a contracting vehicle managed by the Air Force and comprising separate contracts for sustaining the ICBMs’ guidance, ground, propulsion, and re-entry subsystems. As ISC, BAE serves as the Air Force’s chief technical advisor and support contractor for Minuteman 3 sustainment. The GBSD contract extension appears to entail a similar role.

Even if DoD hews to its current pre-acquisition schedule, GBSD could face a continuing resolution (CR) for fiscal year 2016 appropriations, a possibility that voices on Capitol Hill have recently said appears likely. CRs do not fund new start programs, so the Pentagon might have to request a special allocation—known as a “funding anomaly”—to support the program’s launch.

“Our tendency is to try to get that timing just right so we don’t buy too much capability early, but there’s always a risk of running into snags, running into misunderstandings and running into funding levels that don’t meet what’s required,” Kowalski said. “We can usually recover from that long term, but it’s not cheaper. So keeping the program as both effective and efficient requires pretty much sticking to a schedule that industry can certainly do their planning and meet their certain targets and their subcontractors can meet their targets, but while we deal with things like we have the last few years with constantly moving budget numbers and figures and uncertainty as to where the budgets are going, that drives more cost on all of these programs.”