USAF doesn’t know how it will afford new $85 billion nuclear missile defense system

Senior Airman Gregory Gerst, 90th Missile Maintenance Squadron Missile Maintenance Team top sider, explains the inside of a payload transporter July 24, 2016.(U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Jason Wiese)

The intercontinental ballistic missiles, know as the Minuteman nuclear weapons, were designed in the 1960s at the height of the cold war and are starting to show their age.

With replacement parts difficult to find for the weapons, ageing silos with decaying concrete and a design made in an analogue age, the Pentagon decided that replacement was necessary.

The Pentagon’s official estimate of $85 billion to replace the ICBM — already 37 percent above the Air Force’s $62 billion figure — is itself a low-end estimate, the head of Cost Assessment & Program Evaluation says, according to Breaking Defense.

CAPE almost never offers alternative estimates of a program’s cost, said director Jamie Morin, but it had to here because there’s so much uncertainty over the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent, which has not been replaced for 40 years. By contrast, Morin sounded much more confident about the B-21 Raider bomber and the Ohio Replacement Program submarine.

The Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD) is a follow-on system designed to incorporate emerging strategic missile technologies to increase performance, security, nuclear safety and surety while reducing life cycle costs and modernizing the infrastructure.

On GBSD, “we did what is a very rare thing for us, and we actually published (in CAPE’s acquisition memorandum to undersecretary Frank Kendall) both a low estimate and a high estimate,” Morin said. Kendall, the Pentagon’s chief procurement officer, chose to accept CAPE’s low estimate, which lay in the middle: 37 percent higher than the Air Force figure but lower than CAPE’s high-end figure.

What was that higher number? “I will not be publishing cost estimates from the podium here today,” Morin said to laughter.

Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James told reporters at the recent Air Force Association conference that the service was reasonably confident in its much smaller $62 billion estimate for GBSD. But both she and Morin say it’s unusually difficult to forecast the cost of building a new ICBM because we just haven’t done it in so long. The controversial MX Peacekeeper was deployed in 1986 and retired in 2005.

What’s more, a lot of the data on the Peacekeeper “simply doesn’t exist,” Morin said. That’s in part because of a decision made during the acquisition reform movement of the 1990s to stop collecting cost data on a broad swath of programs, he said, which left “a huge gap” in records. CAPE was actually able to obtain information on the Navy Trident II D5 ballistic missile — first fielded in 1990 — that the Air Force hadn’t gotten, Morin said, which is one reason for the difference in their estimates. But for information on an actual ICBM, estimates had to fall back on data from the Minuteman missile program, which updated to the current variant in 1970, with the original version developed during the 1950s and 1960s.

“We used it, but it’s extremely old data,” said Morin.

The Air Force “doesn’t know how we are going to afford this,” said Laicie Heeley, a nuclear expert at the Stimson Center, a non-partisan anti-nuclear proliferation think tank in Washington.

“Nuclear is crowding out more conventional systems that are [better suited to] the threats of today.”

The Air Force issued requests for proposals in July for vendors to replace the Minuteman, named after colonial militiamen who eventually fought against the British in America’s Revolutionary War, according to AFP.

Defense Secretary Ash Carter is scheduled to speak on the future of America’s nuclear capability during a visit to Minot Air Force Base, N.D. at 4:50 p.m. today.

By Sydney J. Freedberg Jr. (Popular Military’s Michael Swaney contributed to this report)

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