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Prototype components of the Air Forces’ new, high-tech, under development next generation ICBM already exist as the service prepares to “fire off” its first test launch of the new Ground Based Strategic Deterrent in 2023.
“We are well into building our first components of the actual ICBM,” Greg Manuel, Sector Vice President and General manager, Northrop Grumman, told The National Interest in an interview.
Ground Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD)
Low Rate Initial production is slated to start by 2026, and the weapon is reportedly on track to deliver by the end of the decade. Couldn’t come soon enough, according to senior Air Force leadership now concerned about a potential “missile” between the arrival of the new GBSD and the obsolescence and retirement of the decades old Minuteman III ICBM.
Given its success so far, will the Air Force further accelerate GBSD to the extent possible? This could be realistic given the impact thus far of a Digital Engineering approach which enables the service to assess and fast-track components of the weapon by replicating and testing them in a digital environment prior to construction. Will the Air Force further accelerate GBSD? Maybe.
Rapid and Successful Progress
While clear to emphasize that any programmatic or timing decisions related to GBSD are to be made by the Air Force, Northrop developers did say progress with the new weapon has been rapid and successful due to what they describe as a collaborative relationship with the service. Northrop Grumman developers also say that, should the Air Force request further accelerations, they would be able to respond effectively.
This ability to accelerate may indeed prove to be crucial, given the level of concern about a possible “missile gap,” something which a Government Accountability Office report said may already be beginning to take shape; the report said the Minuteman III may not be able to meet full mission requirements by 2026.
"A gap between Minuteman III and GBSD is not something we can have, especially since the ICBM is the cornerstone of our nuclear defense,” Lt. Gen. Richard M. Clark, deputy chief of staff for Strategic Deterrence and Nuclear Integration told The Mitchell Institute Nuclear Defense Forum in an interview earlier this year.
The level of concern continues to prompt a two-fold Pentagon effort to close the gap, including both successful development of the GBSD alongside a pursuit of aggressive upgrades to the Minuteman III.
Clark told The Mitchell Institute that the Air Force is now pursuing as many as 20 different modernization programs for the Minuteman III. Recognizing that the 50-year-old weapon certainly has limitations and can only be upgraded to a certain extent, Clark explained that there is important ongoing work to improve the missile itself, as well as its launchers and boosters.
As part of this effort, the Air Force has been continuing to fire off and test upgraded Minuteman IIIs to ensure potential adversaries’ understand the U.S. has a functional nuclear deterrent during this transition to GBSD.
There has been a longstanding Congressional demand for faced paced modernization, innovation and replacement programs regarding the U.S. nuclear arsenal, given the size and modern condition of Russia’s arsenal, among other things.
GBSD vs. Minuteman III: $38 Billion Savings
As is often the case with these kinds of major weapons programs, cost questions often figure prominently when it comes to developmental and programmatic decisions. Interestingly, Air Force leaders say calculations have found that building a new GBSD for the long term saves as much as $38 billion dollars when compared to further extending the Minuteman III.
“One of the key things with GBSD is an ability to sustain and operate into the future. Every way we look at this, the most cost-effective way was not to life-extend the Minuteman III. Life-extending Minuteman III was not a viable path. There is an extensive price tag for trying to modernize and sustain the Minuteman III because you will need to replace parts that weren’t meant to be in the ground that long,” Gen. Timothy Ray, the commander of Air Force Global Strike Command, told The Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies in an interview earlier this year.
While there is certainly promise when it comes to the development and pace of the GBSD, which may well still be accelerated, as well as hope for some measure of “bridge” enhancements or sustainment of Minuteman III functionality, Clark described the situation as “fragile.”
“All of these programs are intended to extend Minuteman III before it falls off a cliff. We are investing to keep the gap closed but that margin is fragile,” Clark said.
GBSD: Digital Engineering
All of this likely contributes to why the GBSD is on the fast track to arrival and the service’s 6th-Generation fighter is already airborne years ahead of schedule for a few key reasons. One them is digital engineering, a fast-spreading technique showing progress across a wide range of weapons systems using simulations and computer modeling to maintain developmental fidelity and detail without having to wait years to actually “build” large numbers of prototypes.
“Digital Engineering is allowing us to go at a quick pace and focus on meeting milestones we have established. We will start our production program in 2026, with some early procurement in 2024 of long lead items that can take a year or two to build. Digital innovation has afforded us the opportunity to build, deliver and meet what would have been a potential gap between Minuteman III and GBSD. We are on a path to meet the Air Force expectation,” Greg Manuel, Sector Vice President and General manager, told The National Interest in an interview.
Through digital engineering, the GBSD continues to be engineered to bring new levels of reliability, targeting and guidance technologies to sustain the U.S. ground-fired ICBM fleet well into the 2070s and beyond. Software upgrades, for instance, can add new guidance systems, reliability technologies and targeting sensors to the weapon as new innovations emerge, an important factor given that the new ICBM is slated to serve for decades and operate against a new generation of enemy threats and countermeasures.
The possibility for ongoing modernization was intentionally built into early designs of the weapon, due to the use of digital engineering techniques able to replicate technological detail and help establish common computer standards enabling continued upgrades. It would make sense that the weapons were built with a specific mind to ongoing modernization, given that the U.S. Air Force has a long history of upgrading and maintaining ICBMs
“We’ve made good progress on engineering the weapons systems. Digital Engineering is paying off quite well for us and expediting knowledge,” Manuel added.
Digital engineering brings the added advantage of being able to save time and lower costs by assessing and testing designs before “bending metal” as it is called. Interestingly, digital engineering is proven to very reliably replicate weapons system performance through simulation to give developers a realistic and quick estimation of key performance parameters and design effectiveness.
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“You can imagine that Minuteman III was designed with 1960s technologies to last for 10 years.. GBSD is designed in a digital environment to last 50 years with current technology to drive out the risk of the development of the program and build in an ability to have adaptability and flexibility,” Manuel added.
A digital blueprint of technologies built into the system enables weapons systems to be monitored and compared against designs to ensure continued functionality and anticipate repairs much earlier in the process.
“We have a digital way to drive a significant reduction in operational maintenance costs. We will have an ability to now have sensors to help you understand what is going to break before it breaks. There are a lot of moving parts that have to get maintained using this digital environment. Tens of thousands of parts will be monitored and on alert every single day, as this is the only weapon system that works every single day and stands on alert,” Manuel said. “Every launch facility will actually come with a configuration book that we call a digital threat. Every product will have the heritage of where it came from.”
GBSD: "Wholesale Change"
Many are likely to regard the Air Force’s new Ground Based Strategic Deterrent as purely focused upon a fast-tracked replacement of 400 or more ICBMs dispersed across vast regions of the North-Central U.S., yet the effort is actually much more comprehensive and far-reaching.
“GBSD is a wholesale change, all the way from the actual missile to the silos that house missiles to the launch centers that house the missile combat crews that stay on watch 24/7, Greg Manuel, Sector Vice President and General manager, Northrop Grumman, told The National Interest in an interview.
Along with designing and building the missiles themselves, prototypes of which already exist, the Northrop Grumman-Air Force effort includes a rebuilding of the entire ICBM infrastructure to include new launch facilities and launch centers, as well as new software and Command and Control technology. Northrop Grumman is reconstructing as many as 450 launch facilities and building the first prototype components of the ICBM, which will first fire off in 2023.
“We are well into building our first components of the actual ICBM. The GBSD program is more than just the missile but a recapitalization of the entire system,” Manuel said.
Building the entire infrastructure, which of course includes hardware, advanced computing and new generations of software, is of course critical to performance and sustainability for the weapons system for decades into the future.
The Minuteman IIIs are not only aging themselves, as a 1960s technology, but also supported by obsolete and aging equipment, one reason why Northrop Grumman, the Air Force and several of its industry partners have continued to work on hardening of networks and reliable cyber systems to prevent “hacking” or “enemy intrusions” into any kind of launch protocol. The silos themselves are important too as they house the weapons and would ultimately be key to propulsion should they need to be used.
The advanced Command and Control is likely to be securely integrated with higher authorities to shorten the timeline or notification curve between when senior decision makers learn of a threat and responsive weapons systems are put on alert. This incorporates space connectivity with secured and fortified ground control stations in position to quickly integrate with ICBMs should there be some kind of unanticipated “bolt-out-of-the-blue” attack.
The growing extent to which weapons systems are cyber reliant reinforces the need to harden command and control networks and computer processing for the new ICBMs, as advanced connectivity can bring unprecedented advantages while also introducing some risks. This may be why the entire hardware and software infrastructure necessary to support the new ICBMs is essentially being rebuilt with upgradeable, securely developed technologies.
New ICBM to Counter China
China’s massive expansion of nuclear weapons, coupled with the sheer size of Russia’s existing and highly modernized arsenal are inspiring the Air Force to take specific, measured steps to ensure its now-emerging Ground Based Strategic Deterrent ICBM 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 such that it can function well into the 2070s. This kind of 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 IP protocol to enable long-term interoperability with new enhancements 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. Even the ground piece and the hardening of the C2 network will adapt over time. Cyber today is not going to be cyber tomorrow. Our solutions will have to adapt and be flexible,” Greg Manuel, Sector Vice President and General manager, Northrop Grumman, told The National Interest in an interview.
There are additional reasons why the Pentagon is pursuing GBSD with a sense of urgency. Not only is there a concern to avoid any kind of functional missile gap in capability until GBSD arrives in sufficient numbers, but Pentagon leaders are alarmed and extremely disturbed by China’s massive effort to increase its nuclear arsenal. Pentagon and Congressional reports say 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, Commander, U.S. Strategic Command, told an audience at the symposium in Huntsville, Ala.
U.S. Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall says China’s move to add hundreds of new land-based, fixed ICBM silos amounts to their developing 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. If they continue down this path to increase their ICBM force, then that is a de facto first-strike capability,” Kendall told reporters at the Air Force Association Symposium.
Details related to capabilities advancements with the GBSD are not available for security reasons, yet 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. This weapons system is being designed to be adaptable and being built to ensure it will drive deterrence for the next 50-years,” Manuel said.
Due to START II treaty between Russia and the U.S., the GBSD is being designed with a single warhead. China, however, does not operate with similar constraints and is cited by U.S. Congressional reports as having 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 paper published by the National Nuclear Security Administration. 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 paper 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 added.
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