Air Force sticking with Sentinel despite huge cost breach, officials say

by Braxton Taylor

The Air Force will not abandon its program to build the next intercontinental ballistic missile, despite the massive cost overrun it reported to Congress last week, officials said.

“Sentinel will be funded. We’ll make the trades that it takes to make that happen,” Lt. Gen. Richard Moore, deputy chief of staff for plans and programs, said Wednesday at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. 

The Air Force recently notified Congress that the LGM-35A Sentinel ICBM program is now expected to cost 37 percent more than previous projections, totaling almost $132 billion. The overruns breach the Nunn-McCurdy Act threshold, which means Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin will have to certify the program to stop it from being canceled. 

“Some of the assumptions that were made at the beginning of the program when the initial cost estimates were made were just not particularly valid, and now we have a lot more information that should allow us to stay much closer to the cost estimates that will be developed as part of the Nunn-McCurdy process,” said Kristyn Jones, who is performing the duties of the under secretary of the Air Force. 

The Government Accountability Office warned in June that ICBM-builder Northrop Grumman was struggling with staffing shortfalls, supply chain problems, and clearance processing delays.

The overruns aren’t caused by the “missile itself,” but by the program being a massive “civil works” project, including building the silos and missile field modernization, Jones said at the CSIS event.

The service has already looked “pretty extensively” at how to trim costs, but will continue that effort and assess the program’s management structure, Jones said. 

“My hope is that throughout the end of this process, we’ll be able to fine-tune the program and reduce risk moving forward. But there won’t be a decision made that we can live without it,” Jones said. 

Extending the life of current ICBMs is “not a viable option,” Moore said.  

“One way not to solve this is to think that we can just extend Minuteman III. There is not a viable service life extension program that we can foresee for Minuteman III. It was fielded in the 70s as a 10-year weapon,” he said. 

2025 budget preview

As the service examines how the Sentinel program will affect its future purchasing plans, officials are planning the Air Force’s transition from buying “platforms and weapons” in 2024 to “integrated, end-to-end effects chains” in 2025. 

The service will cut its fleets to pivot toward high-end technology: the fighter force will go from seven fleets to two, bomber force from four to two, and tanker force from three to two, Moore said. 

These moves will bring down the average fleet age, and allow the service to “only field things that are relevant,” Moore said.

“It’s not just about the money, although there is a lot of money in legacy force structure to keep it viable. It’s also about the people. There are a lot of airmen in the Air Force that are not doing things that contribute to what we envision as the future task,” Moore said.

Future investments include the service’s program to create next-gen command and control, called Advanced Battle Management System, or ABMS, the Air Force’s contribution to Joint All Domain Command and Control, or JADC2.

The service fielded the first instantiation of cloud-based command and control in October and they have “a tangible result of all of the research and development and all of the thinking and all of the design that’s gone into ABMS as our contribution to the joint fight, and it’s now on the floor at [Eastern Air Defense Sector] in New York and working,” Moore said.

Another Air Force Department priority is putting more Space Force officials on the joint staff and in OSD so that “space effects” are considered in Pentagon decisions, Jones said. 

“Some of the capabilities that we need for the joint warfighter and for handling space as a warfighting domain are not there, and so that’s where we’re hoping that in the next couple of years, we can get the resources we need to address those capability gaps,” Jones said. 

The service has also made progress in its effort to field what it calls collaborative combat aircraft—drones that will fly alongside manned fighters. Five contracts have been awarded to develop CCAs, Jones said.

“Those are teams of both traditional and non-traditional. Where a lot of the non-traditionals are coming in is in the autonomy and that pairing with the crewed platform,” Jones said.

But while the program was able to award initial contracts, Jones warned the service won’t be able to “ramp” up spending under a continuing resolution, since CRs freeze most spending at 2023 levels. 

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