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The Broken Leg of America’s Nuclear Triad

A new ICBM could be built without competition
(Photo: Northrop Grumman rendering of B-21 Raider. Illustration: Leslie Garvey/POGO)

The Pentagon insists it needs its Cold War-era nuclear triad of bombers, submarines, and land-based missiles to ensure at least one of those legs will survive following a surprise enemy attack. That’s so the U.S. can respond to such a bolt-out-of-the-blue strike with an atomic rejoinder of its own. It’s a long-standing, although dubious, refrain.

“We found that the Soviet threat to the weapon systems of the land and sea legs had … been overstated,” a top Government Accounting Office official at the time told Congress 26 years ago. “For the sea leg, this was reflected in unsubstantiated allegations about likely future breakthroughs in Soviet submarine detection technologies.”

Competition—which too often proves scarce when it comes to military procurement—is becoming an even rarer commodity.

The Pentagon’s logic undergirding the triad, such as it is, is in danger of falling apart: The U.S. military is on the cusp of putting all of those nuclear eggs into a single basket.

Northrop Grumman is developing the Air Force’s B-21, the nation’s only new strategic bomber, as well as the motors that power the nuclear missiles launched by Navy submarines. And now, as of July 25, it is the lone American company seeking to build a new generation of land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). That’s the day Boeing, which has built the nation’s ICBMs for 60 years, announced it was junking its bid to build the newest such missiles. It contends that Northrop’s 2018 purchase of Orbital ATK, the maker of the nation’s largest rocket motor, gives it an unfair advantage.

Why we’re here—and how we got here—is a tale of a once-massive military-industrial complex melting down into a handful of firms. That has made competition, which too often proves scarce when it comes to military procurement, an even rarer commodity. And, as it stands right now in the case of the nuclear triad, non-existent.

If you’re a true hawk—or even just a taxpayer—this is no way to prepare for nuclear war.

Boeing’s decision to abandon its effort to build the next generation ICBM sent a jolt through the nation’s rocket business. It signals an apparent end to Boeing’s critical role in the production of ICBMs. It has built all three generations of the Minuteman, the first of which was deployed during the Kennedy administration. It has also played a key role in keeping them ready to launch within five minutes of a presidential order ever since.

For decades, the Pentagon has named its various ICBM forces after their missiles—Atlas, Titan, Minuteman I, II, and III, along with the MX Peacekeeper (only 400 Minuteman IIIs, buried in silos near Air Force bases in Montana, North Dakota, and Wyoming, remain on duty). But the ICBM force now under development is known, grandiosely, as the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD), kind of like a newborn human baby without a name. (“Right now, the GBSD procurement is open, so I’m not going to comment on that,” chief Pentagon weapons buyer Ellen Lord said August 26 when asked what impact Boeing’s withdrawal from the ICBM competition might have.)

The GBSD is part of the Pentagon’s mammoth plan to replace all three legs of the nuclear triad. In addition to the roughly $100 billion price tag on the new crop of ICBMs, the U.S. military wants to replace its B-52 and B-2 bombers with Northrop’s new B-21 Raider (estimated cost: $100 billion). It is retiring its Ohio-class “boomer” subs with a new Columbia-class fleet (estimated cost: $128 billion), both of which are outfitted with the Northrop-powered Trident missiles. The cost of buying and operating these weapons is estimated at an eye-watering $1.7 trillion between now and 2046, according to the independent Arms Control Association.

(Source: Arms Control Association)

The Pentagon’s acquisition strategy “must address the unfair advantage that Northrop holds as a result of its control of solid rocket motors, the essential component of the GBSD missile system,” Leanne Caret, chief of Boeing’s defense division, told the Air Force in a July 23 letter. “We lack confidence in the fairness of any procurement that does not correct this basic imbalance between competitors.”

Over the past 24 years, the number of American companies producing such motors has fallen from six to two. Aerojet Rocketdyne is the only other U.S. firm making solid-rocket motors. The motors represent roughly 90 percent of an ICBM’s mass, and about half its cost.

This outcome shouldn’t come as a shock. “In the very near future all the large SRMs [solid-rocket motors] for strategic missiles and space launch will be produced by OATK [Orbital ATK],” the Pentagon warned Congress in a 2017 formal report on the dwindling number of suppliers of key military technologies (Northrop has since renamed Orbital ATK as Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems). “This potentially leaves the United States with a single large SRM supplier, which can lead to cost increases due to lack of competition, decreases in internal research and development efforts, and risk of security of supply if a catastrophic accident should occur.”

This GAO report shows how the number of contractors building solid-rocket motors for the Pentagon and NASA has shrunk over the past 25 years.
(Source: GAO-18-45)

The Pentagon has pegged the program’s cost as high as $100 billion, 61 percent more than the Air Force’s initial $62 billion estimate, for 666 missiles. The Air Force, according to then-Pentagon cost czar Jamie Morin, used older data to develop its lower estimate. “They used a blended model that looked at strategic launch vehicles from 1960 to I think about 1990,” Morin told Defense News in 2016. “The newest data is 25 years old. So it turns out there has been cost increases in a lot of the segments, a lot of the industries that we are talking about here from the 1990s to present. So we are introducing some of the more current stuff tended to push our estimate up.”

Imagine that.

In April, three months before Boeing quit the program, a top Air Force general said he was counting on the head-to-head competition between Boeing and Northrop to shave “billions” off the program’s cost.

Never mind.

If the 21st century need for the 20th century triad is questionable, the ICBM procurement pickle the Air Force now faces makes it even more challenging. “Delays and increasing costs will … provide grist for those who would cancel the program entirely,” Rick Berger of the American Enterprise Institute wrote on the Defense One website on August 5. Congressional opposition, he added, “intends to throw enough sand in the program’s gears so that a Democratic president might kill it in 2021.” Besides, he added, the new ICBM program is not all that costly: “Even at the high end of its cost estimate, the entire GBSD program would cost less than Americans spend annually on fast food or beer.”

Three months before Boeing quit the program, a top Air Force general said he was counting on the competition between Boeing and Northrop to shave billions off the program’s cost.

But other outside experts insist there is no need for brand-new, land-based missiles. “ICBMs are redundant and dangerous,” says William Hartung, director of the Arms and Security Project at the non-profit Center for International Policy. “They are redundant because invulnerable submarine-launched ballistic missiles are sufficient for deterring other countries from attacking the United States. They are dangerous because they operate on hair trigger alert, with launch decisions needing to be made in some cases within minutes. This increases the risk of an accidental nuclear war.”

Even former defense secretary William Perry has said they’re no longer needed. “Any reasonable definition of deterrence will not require that third leg,” he told me in 2015. “Deterrence is deterrence, and you can achieve it with an asymmetrical force, and you can achieve it with fewer numbers.” Experts also say ICBMs are “uniquely destabilizing, uniquely dangerous,” in Perry’s words, because their fixed location makes them sitting ducks, strategically speaking. Unlike moving subs and bombers, their locations are known. That’s why the Pentagon spent so much time and effort in the 1980s to develop mobile ICBMs—railcars for MX missiles and trucks for Midgetman missiles. An ICBM “is destabilizing because it invites an attack.”

Any reasonable definition of deterrence will not require that third leg.

William Perry, former defense secretary

A shift to a “deterrence only” strategy could allow for cuts in the U.S. nuclear arsenal, converting it from a war-fighting tool into a smaller force intended only as a second-strike force. Global Zero, a non-profit group pushing for worldwide nuclear disarmament, says such a force requires about 1,100 nuclear weapons (roughly a two-thirds’ cut, but still an amazing number) aboard submarines and bombers. Such a scaling back could “save hundreds of billions of dollars over 30 years otherwise spent on force modernization, maintenance and operations, and warhead work by the Department of Energy’s nuclear facilities,” Global Zero’s Bruce Blair wrote last September.

If the additional deterrence provided by the ICBM leg of the triad is dubious, the jobs and commerce it provides are real. Backers of the new ICBMs include the Senate Intercontinental Ballistic Missile Coalition. Not surprisingly, its members hail from states where the missiles are deployed or Utah, where the Air Force’s program office, and much of its contracting, is based.

“While we represent strong local interests in the ICBM mission, we also possess, by virtue of our close relationship to the ICBM force, years of accumulated experience on strategic matters,” the coalition said in a 2016 paper. “The ICBM leg of the nation’s nuclear triad plays a critical role in deterring 21st Century threats but must be modernized to ensure it is both effective and credible for the next several decades.”

Although some members of the coalition have left the Senate due to retirement (Orrin Hatch, a Utah Republican, who retired in 2018) or defeat (Heidi Heitkamp, a North Dakota Democrat, who lost to GOP challenger Kevin Cramer in 2018), newcomers get with the program pretty quickly. “Congress must make the modernization of our nuclear deterrent a high priority—which includes standing up the Ground Based Strategic Defense Program at Utah’s Hill Air Force Base,” Senator Mitt Romney(R-UT) (who took Hatch’s seat in January) said in a tweet following a hearing where he pushed for the program.

Betting everything on Northrop, as it now stands, will lead to a costly program relying on a single bidder.

The choices facing the Air Force range from bad to worse. Betting everything on Northrop, as it now stands, will lead to a costly program relying on a single bidder. That’s sure to raise congressional concerns. It may also spark questions from the Federal Trade Commission, which required Northrop to provide rocket motors to competitors on “a non-discriminatory basis” as part of the federal approval for its purchase of Orbital ATK. But despite such safeguards, Boeing wasn’t interested.

As Space News detailed on July 25:

Boeing told the Air Force that an arrangement with Boeing as prime and Northrop as a subcontractor would not work, sources said, and suggested the Air Force provide the ICBM engines as “government furnished equipment.” That would have required the Air Force to separately buy the solid rocket motors used in each of the three stages of the missile and provide them to both competitors. “That would largely level the playing field,” one industry source said. The Air Force did not agree to that strategy.

The Air Force could tweak the rules for the competition to lure Boeing back in. Or the two companies might work out some kind of a teaming deal to preserve as least a modicum of competition. Yet such changes would undoubtedly delay the program, now slated to become operational in about a decade.

Then again, the Pentagon could simply decide to upgrade its Minuteman III ICBMs. “The Minuteman III was put in the ground in 1973 with a plan to do two life extensions,” Air Force General Paul Selva, then the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in April (he retired in July). “We are now on the third and may have to do a fourth before we can get its replacement in the ground.”

Center for Strategic and International Studies defense budget expert Todd Harrison, an Air Force veteran with a pair of Massachusetts Institute of Technology degrees in aeronautics, said in a 2017 report that steps can be taken to keep the current ICBM force up and running. “The missiles could go through another propellant replacement program, as they did in the 2000s, to re-core the missiles and extend their lives for another 30 years,” Harrison said.

In fact, Minuteman ICBMs have been around so long that elements have been turned into museums not far from South Dakota’s Mount Rushmore. “Learn what it was like to have the awesome responsibility of thermonuclear war at your fingertips,” the National Park Service says on its website. You can visit a missile silo for free, but touring an underground launch center, where missileers controlled 10 ICBMs, will cost $12. That’s a lot less than the $100 billion slated for its replacement, but it only goes to show: there’s no such thing as a free launch.