U.S. Air Force Secretary Warns Development of Urgently Needed ICBM ‘Struggling’: Program Collapse Possible

On November 14 Secretary of the U.S. Air Force Frank Kendall revealed that development of a new generation of intercontinental range ballistic missiles (ICBMs) under the LGM-35A Sentinel program was “struggling,” highlighting that the program was one of the biggest and most complex the had ever undertaken. He contrasted this with the development of the B-21 Raider stealth bomber, which made its first flight on November 10, stating that he was “fairly optimistic comparatively about the B-21. Sentinel, I think is quite honestly struggling a little bit.” Although facing cost overruns and making its first flight close to three years behind schedule, the B-21’s has suffered from significantly less issues than all other post-Cold War programs to develop clean sheet new combat aircraft or surface ships. The expected issues that the Air Force would face developing a new class of ICBM, as well as the immense costs of such a program, fuelled calls from 2020 to retire the Sentinel’s predecessor the LGM-30G Minuteman III from service without replacement – instead relying on a larger fleet of bombers and strategic nuclear submarines to compensate. Britain and France notably set precedents in this regard by abandoning their ground based nuclear forces. The Sentinel program was estimated in 2020 to cost $265 billion, with projections having increased significantly since then while facing setbacks during testing. 

The U.S. Air Force’s need for a new class of ICBM has grown increasingly urgent as the country’s Minuteman III arsenal has deteriorated with age. Based on the original Minuteman I design from 1962, the missiles have been in service since 1970 several decades past their originally intended service lives. As observed by Commander of the United States Strategic Command Charles A Richard: “You cannot life-extend Minuteman III… It is getting past the point of [where] it’s not cost-effective to life-extend Minuteman III. You’re quickly getting to the point [where] you can’t do it at all.”  Richard warned that the missiles were so obsolete that their original designers were dead and engineers no longer even had some of the necessary technical documentation. “That thing is so old that in some cases the [technical] drawings don’t exist anymore, or where we do have drawings, they’re like six generations behind the industry standard. And there’s not only [no one] working that can understand them – they’re not alive anymore,” he stated. 

The Minuteman III is the oldest class of ICBM in service worldwide by a margin of decades, with Secretary Kendall stating regarding the difficulties of developing a successor without any experience for over half a century with a similar weapons program: “There are unknown unknowns that are surfacing that are affecting the [Sentinel] program. It’s been a very long time since we did an ICBM.” The urgency of replacing the Minuteman III arsenal has only increased as the missile class faced a high profile failures during testing, with one missile suffering an anomaly following its launch from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California on November 1 forcing the Air Force to destroy it. 

Proponents of maintaining a land based ICBM arsenal have consistently centred arguments around its much lower operational costs compared to a comparable nuclear strike capability provided by bombers or submarines. Arguments have also highlighted the unique complications which destroying siloed and fortified ICBMs pose for possible adversaries – potentially forcing them to expend several of their own nuclear warheads to destroy each missile on the ground. The deterioration of the Minuteman III arsenal and emergence of growing difficulties developing a successor comes as China, Russia and North Korea have all made significant strides in modernising their own arsenals. The former two have made breakthroughs developing hypersonic glide vehicles with effectively unlimited ranges, while North Korea has made important advances towards fielding missiles with multiple warhead reentry vehicles and missiles with solid fuel composites facilitating shorter launch times. Improvements to strategic missile defence capabilities in China and Russia in particular have also placed the viability of the Minuteman III as a delivery vehicle increasingly in question.