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The Air Force revealed on Thursday that the replacement for the US Minuteman III ground-based nuclear arsenal, a project spearheaded by Northrop Grumman Corp, has exceeded its initial budget of $95.8 billion due to the “impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and inflation.”
The program’s cost has now surged by at least 37% compared to its pre-pandemic estimate in September 2020, as explained by Andrew Hunter, the Air Force’s Assistant Secretary for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics. This expense increase has pushed the total program cost to over $131 billion, with the possibility of further escalation as the US Secretary of Defense finalizes a review by summer.
Contributing factors to this cost overrun include program modifications such as the construction of larger missile silos and the adoption of “more robust materials.” The Minuteman ICBM replacement, a vital component of the nuclear triad that encompasses ground-based ICBMs, nuclear-capable aircraft, and submarine-launched nuclear weapons, is considered an incredibly costly venture to update.
The significant overrun has triggered the Nunn-McCurdy Act, a 1982 legislation mandating the Pentagon to justify to Congress the continued need for a program exceeding its original unit cost by more than 25%. This act also requires demonstrating that there are no viable alternatives to the program.
The most substantial cost increase is linked to modernizing the 450 missile silos and their command infrastructure, which involves laying 7,500 miles of new cables, purchasing trucks, building command centers, and acquiring 659 missiles. Hunter clarified that the missiles themselves are not the primary reason for the cost increase.
Named Sentinel, the Minuteman III replacement program encompasses several phases, including development, design, and procurement. Northrop Grumman was awarded a $13.3 billion contract in 2020 for the engineering and manufacturing development phase. Changes in specifications, such as increased square footage and enhanced power, heating, and air conditioning requirements, have led to escalated costs. “With 450 missile silos, any small change is magnified,” an Air Force official noted.
Mike Rogers, the House Armed Services Committee chairman, emphasized the critical importance of the Sentinel program for the future of US nuclear deterrence, committing to rigorous oversight and ensuring necessary adjustments are made to address the cost overruns.