Pentagon Weighs Refurbishing or Replacing Ballistic Missiles

The 450 ICBMs are expected to last through 2030, but could be retained longer.

The U.S. Defense Department is weighing the feasibility of extending the service life of the nation’s aging Minuteman 3 intercontinental ballistic missiles versus replacing them in coming decades with brand new nuclear-armed ballistic missiles.

The 450 Minuteman 3s are expected to last through 2030, but might be retained longer if they can be further refurbished, senior Pentagon officials said at a Senate hearing on Wednesday. The weapons were first deployed in 1970 and sit on alert in underground silos at three different bases in Montana, North Dakota and Wyoming.

The Air Force, which fields and maintains the missiles, is “very carefully analyzing exactly how the current system is degrading, so that they have a much better understanding of how they might extend the life of this [ICBM], if that is the alternative that’s chosen,” Madelyn Creedon, assistant Defense secretary for global affairs, told the Senate Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee in testimony alongside other civilian and military leaders.

The analysis, which is to begin in July after some “bureaucratic delays,” will conclude late next year, said Lt. Gen. James Kowalski, who heads Air Force Global Strike Command. The assessment will examine whether to undertake a “program to further extend the life of the Minuteman 3 or to develop a follow-on ICBM,” Creedon elaborated in her written testimony.

Many details about the various modernization options and their projected costs -- first examined in an initial Capabilities Based Assessment finalized last October -- remain classified. However, officials say key factors under study include whether to place any new ICBMs in fixed launch silos or make them mobile on trucks or other vehicles; which warhead to mate with the delivery vehicles; and how to modernize these systems most affordably.

Whether the country’s future ICBM -- dubbed the “Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent -- is an updated Minuteman or a totally new design, it appears the missile will share quite a bit of hardware in common with the Navy’s future ballistic missile for basing aboard submarines, Defense officials say.

Which option ultimately is selected, according to experts, might come down to a question that many automobile owners would find familiar: Does it make more sense to save upfront investment by continuing to operate an old design with swapped-out parts and upgrades, or to invest instead in a new system with more up-to-date design efficiencies that could be easier to maintain in the long run?

Another question facing the Minuteman 3’s overseers and custodians is whether the missiles, even after some recent renovations, could actually function through 2030. At the hearing, Senator Deb Fischer (R-Neb.) asked if the Minuteman might age out sooner unless near-term steps are taken to extend its service life.

“I am confident we can get the missile, as it is, to 2030 with the programs that we have in place, or the programs that we don’t have funded yet but plan to pursue in the next couple years,” responded Kowalski, whose command is based in Louisiana.

For example, he said, there is some question about whether the casings around the missile propellant might degrade early, a possibility that could lead to leaks or malfunctions. If the existing propulsion unit lasts an estimated 30 years, no refurbishment would be needed until 2025 or later, he said. However, less longevity in the technology could demand earlier intervention.

Of the Minuteman’s three rocket stages, the third motor is attracting most concern. However, there is no indication to date of any degradation of the materials with which it is made -- not even any “adverse trends” -- which has led many officials to conclude that the already overhauled propulsion system might even last a half-decade or more beyond an estimated 30-year lifespan, one issue expert said.

The expert asked not to be named in discussing the sensitive issue of how long a nuclear-armed system might remain viable.

The Minuteman 3 missile guidance system also could require a service-life extension between now and 2030, Kowalski said.

This, too, is a question under internal debate, according to the issue expert. The Air Force estimate is that the current guidance system -- which helps direct a warhead to its target -- will function for another 17 years. However, some have raised questions about whether existing electronics might fail earlier and should be traded out for updated replacements, this source said.

Kowalski noted in written testimony that the overall service life initially anticipated for the Minuteman 3 was just 10 years, but the missile has since “proven its value in deterrence well beyond the platform’s intended lifespan."

The Air Force is studying how any near-term maintenance for the deployed Minuteman 3s, if needed, would relate to the missile’s eventual replacement, the commander said at the hearing.

“All of the things that we plan to invest in the Minuteman 3 are specific subsystems that we intend to dovetail into the ground-based strategic deterrent, the follow-on [ICBM],” said the three-star general, adding that the Pentagon intends to ensure “we are not paying for the same thing twice.”

Some have suggested the United States might safely eliminate the ICBM leg of the nation’s nuclear triad, and rely instead on a combination of dual-capable, nuclear-conventional bomber aircraft and ballistic missiles aboard highly survivable submarines at sea.

However, Kowalski suggested that as the capability to field atomic arms and ballistic missiles proliferates around the globe, Washington’s ICBM arsenal remains a crucial bulwark against possible nuclear blackmail or coercion threats.

“There are 450 hardened launch facilities in the heartland of this country,” he said. “And if we did not have those, we’d need to think through what that scenario looks like in 15 or 20 years.”

Creedon was asked about a recent Obama administration decision to avoid further escalating tensions with North Korea by rescheduling a Minuteman 3 test launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., which had been slated for last week.

“We decided it was wise to postpone for a while the last launch because of the situation on the Korean Peninsula,” she said. “It was a situation that we just wanted to deal with in a way that we didn’t increase the provocation cycle” in the region, she said.

Plans are now for the next Minuteman 3 test flight to occur between May 21 and 23, which would effectively resume the normal launch schedule where it left off, Creedon said.