Air Force acquisition executive Andrew Hunter says the service’s new Sentinel intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) is developing well and on-track for successful delivery at the end of this decade, indicating that there will not be a “missile gap” between the retirement of the decades-old Minuteman III and new ICBM.
Given the pace and timeframe upon which the Minuteman III is reaching obsolescence, some senior Air Force leaders were concerned about the prospect of a missile gap, but that scenario now appears to be unlikely. The Minuteman III ICBM, which has successfully functioned for many decades, is a 1960s-era weapon approaching the end of its viable service life.
There are several key elements to this. While service leaders have expressed concern about the Minuteman III as a viable option for deterrence moving forward, there have continued to be a number of impactful upgrades to the weapon enabling it to perform successfully. The Pentagon and the Air Force have continued testing and readiness activities with the Minuteman to demonstrate that the ground leg of the nuclear triad will indeed remain fully operational and function as a strategic deterrent in coming years. The service did pause testing on a few occasions in response to Russia’s heightened rhetoric about the possible use of nuclear weapons, but the Pentagon has since resumed some testing and demonstrations to send the message that the United States does have an effective, functional, and ready nuclear capability.
Senior leaders such as Adm. Charles Richard, commander of U.S. Strategic Command, have expressed concern regarding the importance of maintaining and deploying the Sentinel. Richard and other senior leaders and lawmakers have vigorously made the point that having a new ICBM is an absolutely critical requirement. They point out that threats are evolving to a point where an upgraded Minuteman III will not be sufficient to address the environment, a circumstance that requires the rapid development and deployment of the Sentinel.
Hunter was clear that the Sentinel is on track and developing quickly. While details regarding its enhanced or next-generation technologies are of course not available for security reasons, senior leaders do explain that the weapons are being carefully engineered for improved guidance, resiliency from jamming, and sustainability. Initial thinking is that the new weapon will likely function into the 2080s and beyond as a critical strategic deterrent. While the air and sea legs of the triad will also remain operational and viable moving forward, a ground-based ICBM arsenal is arguably one of the only options defenders of a nuclear attack might have to counter a massive, incoming “bolt out of the blue” nuclear attack from an enemy. An assured ability to respond in like fashion may indeed be the best option to prevent that kind of scenario.
Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Master’s Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.