Air Force Makes Pitch for New ICBM, Nuclear Cruise Missile

An unarmed Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile launches during an operational test at 11:01 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 25, 2016, Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Ian Dudley/Released)An unarmed Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile launches during an operational test at 11:01 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 25, 2016, Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Ian Dudley/Released)

The nation’s nuclear deterrent triad isn’t what it used to be, the Air Force said Tuesday in a pitch for the nation to take on the huge costs of modernization.

The Minuteman III Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles in silos throughout the northwest are based on 1960s technology upgraded once in the 1980s and are “working well beyond their service lives,” said Air Force Lt. Gen. Jack Weinstein.

The Minuteman missiles should be replaced by new missiles, dubbed the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent by the Air Force, said Weinstein, deputy chief of staff for strategic deterrence and nuclear integration.

As part of a panel of nuclear experts at the Air Force Association’s Air, Space & Cyber Conference 2016 in National Harbor, Maryland, Weinstein also argued for a nuclear cruise missile to be called the Long Range Standoff (LRSO) as a replacement for the Air Launched Cruise Missile (ALCM).

“I think the LRSO is the most critical piece of the modernization effort” for its ability to be launched from all bombers in the U.S. fleet — the B-52, B-1, B-2 and the future B-21, christened the “Raider” at the AFA on Monday, Weinstein said.

Weinstein said he was leaving the discussion of costs to another day, but said the Air Force had no choice but to press ahead as Russia and China upgrade their own nuclear arms and North Korea seeks to develop a warhead to fit on a long-range missile capable of hitting the U.S.

However, the estimated cost of the LRSO is $20 billion, the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent is put at upward of $60 billion, and various projections for the B-21 put the cost in the neighborhood of $100 billion. At the same time, the Navy is pressing for replacements for its Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines at a cost of upward of $80 billion.

Ronald Lehman, chairman of the Defense Department’s Defense Threat Reduction Agency’s Threat Reduction Advisory Committee, backed Weinstein on the need for the LRSO and Ground Based Strategic Deterrent. Without them, “the unthinkable may become thinkable in the minds of some adversaries,” Lehman said.

To underscore the need for nuclear modernization, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter next week will go to Minot Air Force Base, North Dakota — home to the B-52H Stratofortress bombers of the 5th Bomb Wing and the Minuteman ICBMs of the 91st Missile Wing.

On Sept. 27 and 28, Carter will be in Albuquerque, New Mexico, to thank personnel at Kirtland Air Force Base for their work to ensure the readiness of the nuclear force, the Defense Department said in a release. The base is home to critical operational, testing, storage and development units.

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Richard Sisk
Richard Sisk is a reporter for Military.com. He can be reached at richard.sisk@military.com.