The Air Force’s new, high-tech massively upgraded new intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) has hit an all-out acceleration uptick phase as it moves toward formal production following an acquisition down select of competing prototypes, shoot-offs, and technical progress.
The Pentagon’s Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent, awarded to Northrop Grumman, was greatly expedited by digital engineering technologies which used computer simulations to analyze large numbers of competing design specs to fast-track development, is largely driven by an enormous need. While routinely upgraded over the years and recently test-fired, the existing Minuteman III ICBMs are 1960s-era weapons, and there have of course been much Pentagon discussion and writing about Russian and Chinese nuclear modernization.
The program is large, as the Air Force is planning to build as many as 400 new GBSD ICBMs to spread throughout Montana, Wyoming, and South Dakota. Moving to the next phase may explain why the Pentagon’s 2021 budget essentially triples the amount of money being spent on the program. The Air Force spent roughly $500 million or more on GBSD in 2019 and 2020 and is now moving up to more than $1.5 billion in 2021, a clear sign that the program is on the fast track.
It takes little understanding of defense to recognize that many of the technical improvements to these weapons will not be available publicly for obvious security reasons, yet the new ICBMs are known to be much more capable than their predecessors. Interestingly, several years ago during an earlier phase within the program’s developmental trajectory, I did have a chance to talk generally about the new GBSD with an Air Force 3-Star in charge of the effort. One of the main points he made was reliability and resiliency were paramount to the weapons development, as it will need to last for decades into the future. Added resilience pertains to sustainment and continued modernization of the weapon, yet it also relates to the ICBMs performance in flight. After all, nuclear missiles traveling through space are expected to encounter an entirely new dimension of threats and countermeasures in coming years. What this means, simply put, is that the weapon will need to be hardened and resilient against enemy attacks while in flight to better ensure it can pass through to its target.
What does this mean? Many things, such as a need to harden its electronic guidance systems against enemy “jamming” and electronic warfare attacks intended to throw the missile off course. In addition, perhaps newer kinds of sensor and computer-enabled course-correcting guidance technologies are needed to enable the weapon to elude or avoid enemy interceptor defenses or countermeasures. The missile may also be faster with enhanced propulsion technologies intended to shorten the roughly twenty-minute time period an ICBM needs to travel through its midcourse phase in flight. Also, the missile will likely be armed with massively upgraded and enhanced targeting and re-entry bodies for their warheads.
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 Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.