The U.S. Air Force’s announcement regarding revised cost estimates for the Sentinel ground-based strategic deterrent program must not change the ultimate vector for modernizing the nation’s aging force of 1970s-era Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles.
Our nation requires an effective means to deter nuclear threats. This is why the United States has maintained a credible nuclear triad — nuclear-capable bombers, submarines and ICBMs — since the early days of the Cold War. It is time to modernize this enterprise, with the Sentinel program a key component of that effort.
Ironically, if strategic deterrents are effective, most people will never know they exist. That is precisely what has occurred with America’s triad — many take it for granted.
Each of these systems has its own unique strengths. As far as the ICBM leg is concerned, 450 individual U.S.-based missile sites, of which 400 are on alert at any given time, radically complicates an adversary’s decision-making. If an enemy chooses to preemptively launch a nuclear strike against the U.S., it must hit each of these sites, or risk a devastating retaliatory strike. This guards against aggressors with small nuclear weapons inventories. Striking the U.S. homeland directly — not with a bomber in the air or a submarine at sea — also ensures a rapid, decisive response.
For this concept to deter, it must be credible — something increasingly difficult given the present state of the ICBM enterprise. The Minuteman III system was fielded in the early 1970s and only designed to last a decade. It reused silos and crew facilities constructed in the late 1950s and early 1960s. We are overdue for a reset.
Threats like advanced missile defenses and cyberattacks have changed the attributes required for an effective ICBM force. Moreover, the aging physical infrastructure of the missile silos, crew quarters, computers and the cables connecting them must be replaced. With so many other national priorities competing for finite resources, proactively maintaining the ICBM enterprise too often fell below the cut line. As anyone who owns a home knows, upkeep can only be delayed for so long before issues compound and repairs and reconstruction become nonnegotiable. That is exactly where the ICBM enterprise finds itself today.
Nor are these developments occurring in a vacuum. During the Cold War, the U.S. optimized its triad to deter the Soviet Union. Now, the nuclear threat is multipolar: China is radically growing the size of its nuclear forces, Russia is modernizing, plus North Korea and Iran present key planning considerations.
As a former commander of Strategic Command, Adm. Charles Richard, explained: “We are witnessing a strategic breakout by China. The explosive growth and modernization of its nuclear and conventional forces can only be what I describe as breathtaking.” Absent modernization, the U.S. deterrent force will no longer be credible.
The good news is the Department of Defense understands that triad improvements are nonnegotiable. As the undersecretary for acquisition and sustainment, Dr. Bill LaPlante, explained: “Nothing the department does is more important than reducing the risk of nuclear conflict, escalation and arms races. Our ability to do so is backstopped by a safe, secure and effective nuclear deterrent — and as has been the case for more than six decades, the combination of all three triad legs is the best approach to maintaining strategic stability.”
The Sentinel program includes acquiring new missiles, silos, command-and-control and launch facilities, 7,500 miles of cable, transport vehicles, airborne consoles, training systems, plus its development and test enterprise. The Air Force reports the missile itself is progressing well, with minimal cost growth and a successful engine run this month. Other components are generally on track as well.
The real cost driver is the poor physical condition of existing Minuteman III silos that must be refurbished and other necessary changes like constructing new launch facilities and replacing cabling. The existing infrastructure is in far worse condition than initial estimates anticipated, hence the Nunn-McCurdy overrun.
With the announced increase in future cost estimates factored, the Sentinel program’s unit acquisition cost — which includes the missile, silo, cabling, launch facility and corresponding support equipment for a single site — is increasing from $118 million to $162 million.
While any increase in cost is unfortunate, it is important to place this in perspective. The bottom line is that $162 million for an entire Sentinel system, which will be in service until 2075, is a tremendous value. By comparison, consider that some services are buying conventional long-range missiles that cost over $50 million per shot.
Budgets are tight, which means every defense dollar counts, but the program should not be thought of as “unaffordable,” given the stakes.
Going forward, Sentinel must remain on track. However, the larger challenge will ultimately come down to time. As House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Ala., explained: “The Department must ensure that Sentinel is ready in time to replace the current ICBMs before they reach the end of their lives. Failure is not an option.”
The Department of Defense and Congress must partner to ensure program success and no capability gaps. Now is not the time to take national security risk. To that end, the only thing more costly than sustaining a modern strategic deterrent against nuclear attacks that could devastate the U.S. is not having one at all.
Douglas A. Birkey is the executive director for the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies.