Home » Aviation » STRATCOM CO: Next Air Force ICBM, Navy Sub Launched Ballistic Missile Could Have More in Common

STRATCOM CO: Next Air Force ICBM, Navy Sub Launched Ballistic Missile Could Have More in Common

An unarmed Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile was launched during an operational test in 2013. US Air Force Photo

An unarmed Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile was launched during an operational test in 2013. US Air Force Photo

The U.S. Air Force and Navy are working to include more commonality in their next batch of nuclear tipped ballistic missiles, the head of U.S. Strategic Command (STRATCOM) told reporters on Thursday.
“In terms of commonality, I have signed a letter along with [USN acquisition executive] Sean Stackley and [USAF acquisition executive] William LaPlante such that we do look at a common approach where we can associate with a future missile,” Adm Cecil Haney said, according to a report in Jane’s Defence Weekly.

Currently the Air Force fields the 1970s era LGM-30 Minute Man III intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) and is working toward extending the life of the standing force of 400 missiles into the 2030s. The Navy’s UGM-133A Trident II D5 were first fielded in the 1990s and will carry over to the Ohio-class Replacement Program nuclear ballistic missile submarine that will start construction in the 2020s.

“The Air Force is also modernizing the Minuteman missiles, replacing and upgrading their rocket motors, guidance systems, and other components, so that they can remain in the force through 2030,” read a March Congressional Research Service report.
“It is conducting studies and analysis on its plans to replace the missiles after 2030.”

The Minuteman III replacement — the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent program — is undergoing an analysis of alternatives (AoA) ahead of a request for proposal that could be released to industry as early as this year, Haney said.

In tandem with the AoA, the Air Force and Navy are looking at commonality in the warhead as well as the unspecified components for the future strategic deterrent missiles.

A refresh of the Cold War-era nuclear forces has been an ongoing and expensive line item in the U.S. defense spending planning. Esitmates say the effort to aqdquetly modernize the nuclear deterrent triad of bombers, nuclear submarines and ICBMs could cost up to $1 trillion into the 2040s, according to a Congressional Budget Office estimate.

  • Weaponeer

    Was a proponent of a common ICBM years ago for eventual replacement of existing types. There should be at least two builders and nominal competition maintained throughout the life of the missiles. A mix of silo and land and air mobile types would provide an assured deterrent, saving about $100B by forgoing a SSBN that could become extremely vulnerable if blue-green optics and massive computing render their stealth vulnerable (which would be far less likely if they are not built, preserving it for the attack boats and their arsenals).

    • sferrin

      Bad idea. The whole point of the triad is to make the other guys spend more money trying to deal with your forces. Giving it to him for free hardly accomplishes that.

  • Curtis Conway

    From a most basic analysis of systems we should stick to fundamental logic and simplicity. The project will get complex enough with time as it is, and that complexity should be dealt with once for both launch vehicles.

    One can take a UGM-133A Trident II D5 and launch it off a platform, or out of a silo. One cannot take a LGM-118A Peacekeeper and launch it out of a Fleet Ballistic Missile (FBM) submarine. Recognizing this is way over simplified, a truth is illustrated. That truth is that an FBM launch is significantly closer to the target than an ICBM launch. We are talking about a FBM sitting on another booster. Common top end and the extra range provided by a specific booster design.

    Submarines do not use liquid fuel missiles because of the risk factors of handling that high volatility fuel. This truth has been the fundamental strength of the USN FBM force in the TRIAD in modern times.

    ICBMs typically use liquid fuel, and unlike solid rockets can be turned on and off readily. An ICBM coming from various locations that represent significantly different
    ranges, and that could receive a plethora of target packages, should have this

    Looks like a marriage made in heaven to me. There could be other considerations with respect to replacement of GMD/GBI at some point in the future. If the top end package is simple and versatile enough, it could be used for many things. I hope we are efficient with this engineering development effort and expenditure of the public’s money.

    • sferrin

      “One can take a UGM-133A Trident II D5 and launch it off a platform, or out of a silo.”

      Peacekeeper had all kinds of EMP and shock hardening that Trident D5 doesn’t need. Different requirements. Even the warheads were different.

      • Curtis Conway

        True, and I am not contesting that. When the acquisition is in such small numbers typically cost are high, and could come down with increased numbers purchased (unit cost). We just need a common spec. Technology marches on, and many things that were service specific, or just existed in MIL-STD, is no longer the case. I still contend a larger lot of new acquisition FBMs (USN/USAF) augmented with additional boosters for the USAF silos, will provide a common program with all the cost savings that go along with one production line instead of two, and one program management organization instead of two. It’s all under STRATCOM anyway. This may be an oversimplification, but it is only ‘not possible’ because so many have a vested interest in it ‘not being so’.

        What was it someone said the other day about me and smaller Aegis platforms ? . . . ‘your need to go look in a mirror because your part of the problem’. Well in this case, that analogy my be true in another venue with another group. In the Small Aegis Platform case, one does not have to buy Aegis from Lockheed Martin, the system must perform the functions of Aegis, and that can be accomplished with any number of systems. Same analysis here.

        Even if your analysis can save money, we can still have common warhead, rocket motors, controls support structures. The build of materials does not have to diverge for different services just because the program managers deem it so. Logistics support and maintenance training schools will be common, and therefore provide lower long term operational and maintenance costs for both programs, if the configurations are common.

        If we begin with a common system, then we can get both off the ground, or out of the water, with a common configuration, and the USAF version will just have another booster on top with a liquid fueled rocket. This is not an ‘F-35 for all services’ question . . . it’s a ballistic missile.

        • sferrin

          “Technology marches on, and many things that were service specific, or just existed in MIL-STD, is no longer the case.”

          Yes, technology marches on but physics don’t change. You still need EMP and shock hardening on land based missiles, and you still need insensitive propellants on sea-based missiles. In order to fill all requirements on all missiles you’re going to have a land based missile crippled by lower ISP propellant (to meet naval reqs.)and extravagantly built sea-based missiles (to meet land based reqs.) for no reason.

          • Curtis Conway

            If we save money in the acquisition with a larger block buy, and saved money with a single logistics train and service schools, there will be a long term savings at some point (the reason). I would like to see the numbers.

            The more we buy the less each unit cost. This thing (USAF version) could put small satellites in orbit. We could give the Russians a run for their money and put them on rail, truck, and containers. Direct Strike platform is done, now they would just need a mission set, and international agreements to enable its use. Re-population of combat communications could happen from a container ship appropriately located on the planet.

          • sferrin

            Midgetman was a fantastic idea. I think maybe the best way for a common missile would be to make the front end (PBCV and warheads) shock and EMP hardened, and common to the two, and then have similar, but not identical motors. Size the motors for the SLBM, but with a case strong enough to deal with the propellant a land based missile would be able to handle. Maybe give the land-based missile a stretched 1st stage for more range, or a 3rd stage.

          • Curtis Conway

            Now you’re talking. With the new 3D manufacturing techniques using some rather exotic materials in shapes that were never possible before, this is not that hard all the sudden. We must remember that one just cannot turn off a solid rocket motor. Once the candle is lit . . .it’s lit. However, a liquid booster rocket, or a maneuvering package can make a ballistic missile ‘not so ballistic’. Long term support costs is the name of the game. Defense is going to have to do things smarter particularly for the long term. This is something the USAF is struggling to understand with AMP in the Legacy C-130H fleet for CNS/ATM upgrade. Once the infrastructure is in place (schools and maintenance facilities), the spares are on the shelf, birds rebuilt, the long term support cost on that very expensive process to get you there pays for itself in the long run, and you have better, more hardened, and much less risky airframes to fly. That is what the genesis of MILSTD-1553, MILSTD-1760 (particularly on the fiber optic side) is all about. Once you go fiber, hardening is much easier. Now we are talking photons instead of electrons.

            We have to be careful here and not get too carried away with implementation. Heavy throw-weights will always be required because we cannot trust the other side. We are now living in a reality of the Russians exercising contingency plans (some dating back to Soviet days) based upon the policies implemented by this administration that now make those avenues possible, where we had them locked up before (e.g., Cuban troops in the Middle East suggest the possibilities).

          • Ctrot

            Could not the EMP shielding / shock protection be contained in the ICBM silo rather than in the missile itself?

          • sferrin

            Won’t do you any good if the other guy is detonating EMP devices over your country to kill missiles. (And catching your missile in flight.) A missile launched from an SSBM is much less likely to have to deal with that as it could be launched from just about anywhere.

    • Ctrot

      One nit to pick, modern ICBM’s are solid fuel as well. The last US liquid fueled ICBM’s, the Titan II, were retired in the late 1980’s / early 1990’s.

      I agree that an SLBM fitted with an additional launch booster should make a fine land based ICBM.

      • Curtis Conway

        It is best to deal with solid rocket fuel as some of us began to learn as students in High School in the Rocketry Club. However, the SM-3IIB was cancelled because the smarter among us thought that liquid rocket fuel was just too dangerous to bring aboard ship. I agree with the sentiment, but disagree with the cancellation of the SM-3IIB. A larger solid rocket in a new VLS cell on a BMD ship makes a lot of sense. As Plan A struggles (GMD GBI), Plan B was cancelled (SM-3IIB) with no replacement. Not smart.

  • anything to save money over weapons that end the world.

  • sferrin

    Jack of all trades master of none. There’s a reason they haven’t done this in the past. Different requirements. So you’re either going to get a missile that’s unnecessarily expensive to meet the requirements of BOTH services, or you’re going to get one that doesn’t meet necessary requirements. Shall we guess which one they’ll pick?

    • NavySubNuke

      If the missile is totally common you might have to make such compromises – but I’m not even convinced of that considering how much the ICBM mission has changed since the last time this was looked at during the Peacekeeper program.
      However, in reality there aren’t any such compromises required if you want to use the same sensors in the guidance system or use the same material to construct the motor case for example – and that seems to be more the kind of commonality he is talking about above.

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  • bobbymike34

    Going down to 400 ICBMs under New START ‘should’ dictate the USAF develop a ‘heavy’ ICBM similar in size to Peacekeeper or the Sarmat future Russian SS-18 replacement. It must have a large ‘upload’ capability. We just don’t know enough about future Russian strategic intentions (all their new missile systems are capable of large MIRV payloads) or almost anything about China’s. China’s nuclear infrastructure is almost totally opaque to us.