Video Above: The US Navy has had a breakthrough - it fired a hypersonic weapon 109 nautical miles in two minutes, a massive development
The Air Force’s evolving Ground Based Strategic Deterrent ICBM could not come soon enough, given the age of the existing 1960s-era Minuteman III weapon, perhaps one reason inspiring service Secretary Frank Kendall to name the weapon SENTINEL.
The new ICBM is slated to arrive at the end of this decade, and has been evolving effectively and quickly in part due to effective digital engineering techniques. The on time arrival of the weapon is considered crucial, as Air Force leaders do not want a capability “gap” between the time Minuteman III becomes fully obsolete and the SENTINEL arrives.
To mitigate this risk, the Air Force continues to embark upon a series of extensive upgrade, sustainment and modernization programs particular to the Minuteman III to extend its operational functionality and service life.
As part of this effort, the Pentagon has continued a steady testing pattern for the Minuteman IIIs to ensure that the US retains a viable ICBM capability in the coming years prior to the arrival of the SENTINEL.
The GBSD has been progressing with great success, in large measure due to the successful application of digital engineering techniques which use advanced computer simulation to replicate weapons and technology performance. This expedites development in a substantial way, and advanced computing can effectively determine functionality, efficiency and impact of weapons systems and designs.
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Years ago, during an earlier phase of the GBSD’s development, former Air Force Acquisition Executive William Roper said digital engineering enabled service weapons developers to assess multiple design models at one time in order to refine requirements and figure out the optimal design.
Details related to the new weapon are likely not available due to security reasons, however senior Air Force weapons developers have made several general comments.
During an earlier phase of the new ICBMs development, an Air Force flag officer told me in an on the record interview that the weapon will be built for greater reliability and resilience. This makes a lot of sense given the pace at which adversaries are likely to advance new missile defense technologies.
Added reliability will help the weapon function effectively in a space environment and also ensure its functional longevity for years into the future. This is considered critical because the Air Force plans to operate its new SENTINEL well into the 2080s and beyond.
Video Above: Long Range Hypersonic Weapons
The maturation of the current SENTINEL is taking on new urgency at the moment in light of serious Russian threats regarding the use of nuclear weapons. Ground-based ICBMs are considered to be a critical part of the nuclear triad, a deterrence structure put in place to prevent nuclear war by ensuring catastrophic destruction in response to any nuclear attack.
For instance, if for some reason nuclear-armed aircraft were unable to operate above a target area due to warzone conditions, air defenses or other variables, and nuclear armed submarines were unexpectedly unavailable or unable to attack, ground-based ICMBs would offer a viable opportunity to respond to a nuclear attack in a significant way. All three legs of the triad, therefore, are deemed by the Pentagon to be indispensable to preventing a nuclear attack. The Air Force plans to build as many as 400 of these new SENTINEL weapons, a factor which could enable a salvo of nuclear weapons to be fired in the tragic event that were necessary.
Kris Osborn is the President of Warrior Maven - Center for Military Modernization and 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.