Boeing's Exit From ICBM Bid Shouldn't Become Another Excuse To Delay Modernizing U.S. Nuclear Deterrent
On July 16, the U.S. Air Force asked Boeing and Northrop Grumman to submit their best proposals for building the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD) weapon system that will replace the long-effective but now obsolescing Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). On Wednesday, Inside Defense reported that Boeing unexpectedly told the Air Force that it would not respond to its Request for Proposal (RFP), arguing that the GBSD acquisition program’s current structure “does not provide a level playing field for fair competition.”
What happened? And what is the significance of this turn of events? Northrop Grumman’s 2018 procurement of Orbital ATK, one of the nation’s two suppliers of solid rocket motors, is at the heart of the issue. Both Boeing and Northrop Grumman selected Orbital ATK to produce solid rocket motors for their GBSD designs before Orbital ATK’s acquisition by Northrop Grumman. In Boeing’s opinion, expressed in a July 8 letter to Will Roper, Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics, Northrop Grumman’s ownership of the rocket motor maker, which has been renamed Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems (NGIS), is an unfair advantage.
Earlier this month, Northrop Grumman formally agreed to firewall Boeing’s proprietary information received by NGIS from Northrop Grumman’s GBSD design team, and the Air Force extended the deadline for GBSD RFP submissions in response to Boeing’s concerns. These actions failed to convince Boeing that the GBSD competition would be fair and were elaborated on in a July 23 letter to Roper signed by Boeing Defense CEO Leanne Caret.
This is more than a mere squabble over the arcane details of a major defense acquisition program. Boeing’s decision not to submit a proposal may be used to revive the narrative of die-hard opponents against modernizing the nation’s 1970s-era Minuteman III. In particular, some members of the House Armed Services Committee may use Boeing’s action to call for another study on the feasibility of extending the service life of the Minuteman III. However, in just the past month the House of Representatives, in a vote of 264-144, proclaimed there was no need for additional ICBM studies. Over a dozen such studies have all concluded that a new ICBM is needed to maintain America’s security, and that the GBSD is the only option that will meet the nation’s requirement for a reliable, sustainable, and credible ICBM force.
Another study, especially if accompanied by a requirement to “fence” some amount of GBSD funding until proof-of-concept results are provided to the Congress, could push the start of the program until after the next presidential election. It is quite possible that this may be the actual intent of some congressional opponents of the long overdue need to modernize our nuclear triad.
Unfortunately, time is not on the side of the Minuteman III. Aging missile components no longer in production could cause the size of the Minuteman III force to fall below our nuclear deterrence requirements shortly after 2030. New programs to design and manufacture replacement components would take years to establish, would cost billions of dollars, and in the end would not allow Minuteman IIIs to sustain our nuclear defense needs. As indicated in the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review: “From 2002-2012, Minuteman III underwent a life extension program intended to maintain its viability to 2030… The Minuteman III service life cannot be extended further. In addition, Minuteman III will have increasing difficulty penetrating future adversary defenses.” In other words, another delay to the GBSD could equate to a unilateral decision to downsize the U.S. nuclear triad at a time when China and Russia are already fielding multiple new nuclear weapon systems.
The better choice would be for the Air Force, Boeing, and Northrop Grumman to work together to determine what would be needed to address these concerns. The Air Force has already shown its willingness to modify its GBSD competition process, even to the point where it would consider a joint proposal by Boeing and Northrop Grumman.
Absent a mutually satisfactory agreement, however, the Air Force should continue the GBSD program as scheduled. At this point, moving forward with a single bidder would be preferable to further delaying a Minuteman III replacement. There are abundant precedents for single-bid contract awards. Examples include the follow-on lot buys for the F-35; the Air Force Global Positioning Satellite 3; the Army Armored Multi-Purpose Vehicle; the Navy Presidential helicopter; and the Air Force’s Combat Rescue Program.
Moreover, any major delay would risk increasing the GBSD program’s costs and would likely require additional unplanned investments to sustain the Minuteman III. More importantly, it would degrade the nation’s strategic nuclear deterrence posture at a time when China and Russia are increasing their nuclear weapons investments.
The GBSD is critical to our nation’s security, is cost-effective, and is years overdue. Modernizing our nuclear deterrent triad is too pressing a priority to let it slip any longer.