Replacement for US Minuteman III Missile Surpasses $96 Billion Budget, Prompting Pentagon Review

US-Minuteman-III-Missile-Surpasses-96-Billion-Budget

In a statement on January 18, the Air Force revealed that the replacement project for the Minuteman III, a key component of the U.S. ground-based nuclear arsenal, has officially exceeded its initial budget of $95.8 billion. The overage is attributed to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and inflation. The Air Force is informing Congress that the program, overseen by Northrop Grumman Corp (NOC.N), has surpassed the pre-pandemic cost estimate by at least 37%, which was originally determined in September 2020. Andrew Hunter, the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics, shared these details in an interview with Reuters.

Alterations to the program, including the expansion of silos and a shift to more resilient materials, have contributed to increased expenses. The current estimated total program cost, exceeding $131 billion, may experience further escalation pending the conclusion of a review by the U.S. Secretary of Defense, expected to be completed by the summer. Though cost overruns are common within the Department of Defense, the replacement of the Minuteman intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) stands out for its notably high costs.

The missile network is an integral component of the nuclear triad, encompassing ground-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) with nuclear capabilities, bomber aircraft capable of carrying nuclear payloads, and submarine-launched nuclear arms.

Andrew Hunter acknowledged, “It’s been over 70 years since we did the ground piece of this,” emphasizing the challenge in accurately estimating the project’s costs.

Surpassing predetermined cost thresholds activates the Nunn-McCurdy Act. Enacted in 1982, this legislation mandates that the Pentagon formally justifies to Congress the program’s significance when unit acquisition costs rise more than 25% above a designated baseline. Additionally, the Pentagon must demonstrate that there are no viable alternatives to the current program.

The cost overruns are most pronounced in the comprehensive modernization of the 450 missile silos and associated command infrastructure, involving the installation of 7,500 miles of new cables. The program encompasses the acquisition of trucks, training, command buildings, and 659 missiles.

According to Hunter, the missiles themselves are not the culprits behind the cost overruns. The Minuteman III replacement initiative, named Sentinel, is a multi-phase project involving development, design, and procurement. In 2020, Northrop secured a $13.3 billion portion for an engineering and manufacturing development (EMD) contract, tasked with designing, testing, evaluating, and advancing the program.

Over time, factors such as increased square footage, changes within the silos, and rising costs associated with new systems featuring greater power and heating, ventilation, and air conditioning demands have contributed to the budget escalation, according to an Air Force official who spoke on the condition of anonymity. The magnification of any small change in the context of 450 missile silos further compounds the challenge.

Northrop expressed commitment to supporting the Air Force in reassessing and updating cost forecasts for future phases, encompassing construction projects, production, and deployment of the weapon system.

Estimates from the $13.3 billion EMD phase suggest that the subsequent procurement phase will surpass the initially contemplated $61 billion under the $95.8 billion program. The procurement phase is anticipated to commence in the late 2020s.

Upon winning the contract in 2020, Northrop stated its commitment to delivering a modern and fully integrated weapon system to meet the Air Force’s initial operational capability schedule by 2029.

Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Mike Rogers, emphasized the necessity of Sentinel for the future of the nuclear deterrent and pledged to conduct thorough oversight to address the cost overruns. Hunter affirmed that the program will continue execution during the Nunn-McCurdy review, and any potential timeline adjustments will be contingent on the Office of the Secretary of Defense’s assessment.

Data Source : reuters

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