Is the U.S. Air Force Facing a Nuclear Missile Gap?
Washington is trying to build new ICBMs to replace the aging Minuteman IIIs before they are too old to use anymore.
The Air Force is on track to have a new Intercontinental Ballistic Missile by 2029, due to digital design modeling, accelerated prototyping and new engineering methods. All of these are intended to fast-track the next-generation weapon and meet what many regard as an urgent U.S. need for new nuclear weapons.
The Air Force Nuclear Weapons Center announced the $13 billion deal with Northrop Grumman to build the new Ground Based Strategic Deterrent throughout an eight year Engineering Manufacturing and Development process.
The deal calls for “weapon system design, qualification, test and evaluation and nuclear certification” to ensure the Air Force reaches its goal of having an operational weapon by 2029.
While the effort has been fast-tracked for many years, some senior Air Force weapons developers have been concerned that it may not come soon enough. Much continues to be said about the challenges confronted by the now decades-old fleet of existing Minuteman III ICBMs, weapons which go as far back as the 1960s. The worry is that, should GBSD experience any delays or complications, the U.S. could be left with a dangerous “missile gap” readiness vulnerability.
“A gap between Minuteman III and GBSD is not something we can have, especially since the ICBM is the cornerstone of our nuclear defense,” Lieutenant General Richard M. Clark, Deputy Chief of Staff for Strategic Deterrence and Nuclear Integration told The Mitchell Institute Nuclear Defense Forum earlier this year.
To help avoid or offset the gap, the Air Force is now testing upgraded Minuteman IIIs and pursuing as many as twenty modernization programs for the modernization system. The new GBSD is, according to senior Air Force weapons developers, engineered with advanced guidance, reliability, targeting and sustainment-focused technologies to help bring the U.S. nuclear triad well into the 2080s and beyond.
A break, crack or weak link in the air-sea-ground nuclear triad, many maintain, would expose the United States to unprecedented and unacceptable levels of risk, given that the prospect of any kind of massive land-fired ICBM counterattack exists to prevent nuclear war.
The new ICBMs will be deployed roughly within the same geographical expanse in which the current weapons are stationed. In total, dispersed areas across three different sites span 33,600 miles, including missiles in Cheyenne, Wyoming, Minot, North Dakota and Great Falls, Montana.
Kris Osborn is the new 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.