China’s massive expansion of nuclear weapons, coupled with the sheer size of Russia’s highly modernized arsenal, has inspired the Air Force to take specific, measured steps to ensure its now-emerging Ground Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD) intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) will be built to last half a century if not longer.
The plan for the Air Force GBSD is that the weapon will need to be consistently upgradeable so it can function well into the 2070s. This approach, often referred to by developers as “modular” or consisting of “open architecture,” means the weapons technical infrastructure and standards are being engineered with common sets of internet protocol to enable long-term interoperability with new enhancements. These enhancements are likely to be added in coming years as next-generation innovations emerge.
“GBSD as a weapon system is being designed to respond to known threats of our current adversaries and adapt in future to threats that may come along due to maturation of technologies,” Greg Manuel, Northrop Grumman’s sector vice president and general manager, told the National Interest. “Even the ground piece and the hardening of the [command and control] network will adapt over time. Cyber today is not going to be cyber tomorrow. Our solutions will have to adapt and be flexible.”
The Defense Department is pursuing GBSD with a sense of urgency. It is attempting to avoid any kind of functional missile gap in capability until GBSD arrives in sufficient numbers. Military officials are alarmed and extremely disturbed by China’s massive effort to increase its nuclear arsenal. Reports compiled by the Defense Department and Congress show that China will double its nuclear arsenal over the next decade.
“Only four months ago, commercial satellite imagery discovered what is accepted to nuclear missile fields in western China. Each has nearly 120 ICBM silos. Now these compliment and are added into what they already have,” Adm. Charles Richard, the commander of U.S. Strategic Command, told an audience at the Air Force Association Symposium in Huntsville, Alabama.
U.S. Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall says China’s move to add hundreds of new land-based, fixed ICBM silos is indicative of an effort to develop a “first-strike” capability.
“Most of their weapons have been mobile ICBMs, so this is a very destabilizing move and I am not sure they understand the risk they are taking. Whether they intend it or not . . . their move creates a first-strike capability,” Kendall said. “If they continue down this path to increase their ICBM force, then that is a de facto first-strike capability.”
Details of GBSD advancement are unavailable for security reasons. Both Air Force and industry developers say the new weapon will be more reliable, lethal and survivable against a growing sphere of enemy countermeasures.
“We are designing a weapons system that will deliver a payload on its intended target,” Manuel said. “This weapons system is being designed to be adaptable and being built to ensure it will drive deterrence for the next fifty years.”
The GBSD is being designed with a single warhead due to the START II agreement between Russia and the United States. China does not operate with similar constraints. In fact, it has road-mobile ICBMs with multiple reentry vehicles.
The GBSD is being built with an upgraded W87-1 reentry vehicle, which will provide “enhanced safety and security” compared to the legacy W78, according to a report published by the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Scientific and Technical Information. The report, titled W87-1 Modification Program (Maintaining the Stockpile), notes that part of the enhancements, according to the paper, include an “insensitive high explosive primary that has been designed and tested with advanced safety features.” The report adds that the new W87-1 warhead, to be fielded by 2030, will “be certified without the need for additional underground nuclear explosive testing.”
“Our first launch will be akin to a regular Minuteman III test vehicle with an unarmed or inert warhead,” Manuel said.
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.