The Air Force will not abandon its program to build the next intercontinental ballistic missile, despite the massive cost overrun it reported to Congress last week, officials said.
“Sentinel will be funded. We’ll make the trades that it takes to make that happen,” Lt. Gen. Richard Moore, deputy chief of staff for plans and programs, said Wednesday at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
The Air Force recently notified Congress that the LGM-35A Sentinel ICBM program is now expected to cost 37 percent more than previous projections, totaling almost $132 billion. Overruns have exceeded the Nunn McCurdy threshold. This means that Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin must certify the project to prevent it from being cancelled.
” Some of assumptions made in the early stages of this program were not valid. Now that we have more information, it should be possible to get closer to cost estimates developed through the Nunn McCurdy Process,” explained Kristyn J. Jones, the Air Force’s undersecretary.
The Government Accountability Office warned in June that ICBM-builder Northrop Grumman was struggling with staffing shortfalls, supply chain problems, and clearance processing delays.
The cost overruns were not caused by “the missile itself” but rather by the fact that the project was a huge “civil work” program, which included building silos and modernizing the missile fields, Jones stated at the CSIS conference.
The service had already “pretty thoroughly” examined how it could trim costs. However, Jones stated that the effort would continue and they will assess the management structure of this program.
“My hope is that throughout the end of this process, we’ll be able to fine-tune the program and reduce risk moving forward. Jones stated that there will not be any decision taken to live without the program.
Extending the life of current ICBMs is “not a viable option,” Moore said.
“Another way to not solve the problem is by thinking that Minuteman III can be extended. Minuteman III is unlikely to have a service life extension that will be viable. It was fielded in the 70s as a 10-year weapon,” he said.
2025 budget preview
As the service examines how the Sentinel program will affect its future purchasing plans, officials are planning the Air Force’s transition from buying “platforms and weapons” in 2024 to “integrated, end-to-end effects chains” in 2025.
The service will cut its fleets to pivot toward high-end technology: the fighter force will go from seven fleets to two, bomber force from four to two, and tanker force from three to two, Moore said.
These changes will reduce the fleet’s average age and enable the service “to only field relevant things,” Moore explained.
“It’s not just about the money, although there is a lot of money in legacy force structure to keep it viable. It’s also about the people. There are a lot of airmen in the Air Force that are not doing things that contribute to what we envision as the future task,” Moore said.
Future investments include the service’s program to create next-gen command and control, called Advanced Battle Management System, or ABMS, the Air Force’s contribution to Joint All Domain Command and Control, or JADC2.
The service fielded the first instantiation of cloud-based command and control in October and they have “a tangible result of all of the research and development and all of the thinking and all of the design that’s gone into ABMS as our contribution to the joint fight, and it’s now on the floor at [Eastern Air Defense Sector] in New York and working,” Moore said.
Another Air Force Department priority is putting more Space Force officials on the joint staff and in OSD so that “space effects” are considered in Pentagon decisions, Jones said.
“Some of the capabilities that we need for the joint warfighter and for handling space as a warfighting domain are not there, and so that’s where we’re hoping that in the next couple of years, we can get the resources we need to address those capability gaps,” Jones said.
The Service has made significant progress with its efforts to develop what they call collaborative combat aircraft, drones that fly along side manned fighters. Five contracts have been awarded to develop CCAs, Jones said.
“Those are teams of both traditional and non-traditional. Jones stated that the majority of non-traditionals will be paired with crewed platforms and have autonomy.
But while the program was able to award initial contracts, Jones warned the service won’t be able to “ramp” up spending under a continuing resolution, since CRs freeze most spending at 2023 levels.
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