Posted: 25 May 2017, 3:30 p.m. EDT
Image: An Air Force maintenance team at Minot Air Force Base, N.D., works on the top three components of a Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile.
Credit: Airman 1st Class Kristoffer Kaubisch/Air Force
by Tom Risen, Aerospace America staff reporter
The U.S. Air Force plans to narrow the field to two contractors by the end of the year in the competition to build hundreds of next generation nuclear-tipped missiles to replace the decades-old Minuteman 3s, says the vice commander of Air Force Global Strike Command.
Maj. Gen. Michael Fortney says that once those two finalists for a contract are chosen, “the real thinking will begin” about options for replacing the missiles that the Air Force has kept in silos as a nuclear deterrent since 1970. The Air Force has improved the missiles over the decades, but in Fortney’s view, continuing that approach would pose unacceptably high costs.
Fortney spoke briefly with Aerospace America after a May 19 speech in Washington, D.C., organized by the Air Force Association’s Mitchell Institute. During his speech, he told the audience of industry executives and congressional staffers that the limited lifespan of the rubbery fuel in the missiles was a major factor in the decision to replace the missiles.
“By the late 2020s, the boosters are going to age out, so will the guidance systems, so will other components,” he said during the question-and-answer session. Fortney explained that replacing parts of the missile would be more expensive than building everything from scratch. “If you need a ground-based deterrent, the smart way to approach it is to replace the whole thing,” he said.
Fortney did not elaborate, but after the speech, a missile expert explained the situation. The boosters have been previously refueled with the solid propellant, but the aluminum fuel tanks of each Minuteman 3 would have to be rebuilt to do so again, says Peter Huessy, the senior defense consultant at the Mitchell Institute.
“There are only so many times you can repour the fuel,” Huessy explains. “If you are going to rebuild the propulsion tank that holds the fuel you may as well rebuild the missile.”
The Rand Corp. think tank reported in 2014 that it would be less expensive to upgrade the missiles than to build new ones, but Huessy says that study did not analyze the full cost of upgrading all the aging components of the Minuteman 3.
The debate about whether a next generation nuclear missile would be worth the cost will include analysis of its future as the ground-based part of the nuclear triad, which also includes missile submarines and long-range bombers.
The future of the weapons in each leg of the triad will be considered in the Nuclear Posture Review, an assessment of America’s nuclear arsenal that the Pentagon kicked off in April and aims to complete by the end of the year. The last nuclear posture review was completed in 2010.
The Air Force published a request for information seeking contractors to replace the Minuteman 3 in January 2015. The Air Force aims to keep the existing Minuteman 3 missiles through 2030, so the mid 2020s are being considered as the time frame to begin phasing in new missiles.
Fortney said the Pentagon’s nuclear review comes at a time when “crazy things are going on in the strategic realm,” and a nuclear deterrent is still necessary as “a speed bump” to avoid war between industrial powers.
“Other nuclear wannabes are rattling sabers really loudly,” he said, alluding to nations like North Korea, which has stepped up tests of its nuclear missile program. The U.S. test launch of an unarmed Minuteman 3 in April, however, was planned months in advance and was not a reprisal for North Korea’s missile test earlier that month, he added.
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