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New ICBM costs can, must come down, Hyten says

General John Hyten, Air Force Space Command commander, addresses Team Pete at an all call at the base auditorium on Peterson Air Force Base, Colo., Aug. 4, 2016. (Airman 1st Class Dennis Hoffman/U.S. Air Force)

The United States needs to lower the cost of modernizing its aging intercontinental ballistic missile force, says Air Force Gen. John Hyten, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who believes he’s found a way.

Hyten said he’s been working with Northrop Grumman, the prime contractor on the program, and others to bring that cost down. The solution, he argues, is in new digital engineering technologies and greater flexibility on software requirements.

America’s nuclear triad of bombers, submarines, and intercontinental ballistic missiles, or ICBMs, has come under assault from nonproliferation experts who argue that Cold War-era missiles are unnecessary and pose unacceptable risks, in addition to being very costly. Last week, while traveling with other senior military leaders to meet with representatives from technology companies, Hyten reiterated his view on the importance of retaining the so-called third leg of ICMBs. In 2019 the Congressional Budget Office assessed that the cost of the ICBM replacement — a program called the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent, or GBSD — would run $61 billion over 10 years, or $18 billion more than what the office was projecting in just 2017.

“We have got to make it more affordable,” Hyten said, in an interview with Defense One aboard a U.S. military aircraft last week. “A three-stage, solid rocket ICBM should not cost as much as the forecast says it costs for now. After meeting with the program office at Northrop Grumman multiple times I think that program can come in significantly cheaper. It’s designed correctly. It’s a digital engineering process that should be able to build things quickly and much more effectively.”

Hyten expressed confidence that allowing companies to build, update, evaluate, and test new software more quickly would save taxpayers money, rather than place the same sort of requirements on them that the Defense Department imposes on the creation of hardware. “One thing that’s become clear to me is we have to become fixed and stable in our hardware capability requirement and we have to build some flexibility to iterate software with the operator, the developers, and with industry.”

If so, he said, “I think they can bring that in on schedule and maybe under budget. But if we aren’t flexible in how we manage that program it’s going to cost what it cost.”

New tools like advanced computer simulation and modeling are among many that could allow for much faster development, enabling engineering teams to test and evaluate different design concepts virtually before building physical versions.

Progressives have been urging the Biden administration to cut back on the government’s nuclear modernization plans. In October 2019, Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, called the decision to award the contract to Northrop Grumman on a sole-source basis, after Minuteman III maker Boeing dropped out, “troubling.”

Democrat wins in the 2020 election only added enthusiasm to the fight. In February, Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., told Politico, “I think we need a big debate, now that we are in the majority, about the $100 billion acquisition cost of a new intercontinental ballistic missile, the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent.”

Last December, the Biden team committed to a review of the nation’s nuclear arsenal and modernization plans.

Republicans have pushed back, arguing that no review is necessary and that cuts would be unwise. “We shouldn’t be conducting [such a review] to pause nuclear modernization. That should not happen,” Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb., told the Heritage Foundation last month. “Modernization already is just-in-time, if not late-to-need, and so we don’t have the luxury of pausing or delaying these important programs.”

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