Lockheed Joins Battle to Replace Minuteman Missile

An unarmed Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile launches during an operational test on Feb. 20, 2016, at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Lockheed has entered the competition to build a replacement. (U.S. Air Force photo/Kyla Gifford)An unarmed Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile launches during an operational test on Feb. 20, 2016, at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Lockheed has entered the competition to build a replacement. (U.S. Air Force photo/Kyla Gifford)

Lockheed Martin Corp. introduced Thursday the team that is aiming to win a huge contract with the Air Force to replace the aging Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile, or ICBM — the bedrock of the nation’s nuclear deterrent.

Defense giants Boeing and Northrop Grumman are also bidding on the contract.

“We’re proud to be competing for this development” and “we think we have a very good team” that will include General Dynamics for weapons system command and control, and Bechtel for launch facilities, said John Karas, Lockheed Martin vice president and Ground Based Strategic Deterrent program manager.

In a phone conference, Karas said Lockheed’s proposal was submitted to the Air Force on Tuesday.

“We’re ready to provide a low-risk, affordable solution” and “we look forward to reducing the development costs,” he said.

“Affordability is really important,” Karas said, but declined to give any estimates at this early stage of the project.

In a statement, Lockheed said that the firm “has a long track record of success in engineering, evolving and sustaining ballistic missile systems. The industry team is uniquely qualified to offer the U.S. Air Force the most affordable, low-risk GBSD solution that meets all mission requirements.”

When asked about a replacement cost estimate of $159 billion through 2075, Karas said, “I’ve heard all kinds of numbers. I think it’s up to the Air Force.”

It is just too early to tell, Karas said, and “I’d rather not venture a number. I don’t want to speculate on the different numbers that are floating out there.”

Currently, about 500 Minuteman missiles, each with a MIRV (Multiple Independently Targeted Re-entry Vehicle) warhead, are deployed in silos at four bases in the north-central United States: Minot and Grand Forks Air Force Bases in North Dakota; Malmstrom AFB in Montana; and F.E. Warren AFB in Wyoming.

The Lockheed announcement came two days after Boeing announced its own bid on the development program for the GBSD, the current term for the replacement missile. Northrop Grumman is also bidding on the program.

In a statement, Boeing, which built the Minuteman ICBM in 1958, said, “We are ready to again offer an ICBM that will meet the Air Force mission requirements through 2075.”

The Air Force has expectations of fielding an initial replacement system by the late 2020s for about $50 billion, but Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James has suggested that the $50 billion was decidedly a floor, and not a ceiling, to the eventual costs.

“The magnitude of this type of ICBM work — we have not collectively done it for more than 40 years,” James said at a Pentagon briefing in August. “And so there is a level of complexity that has to be worked through.”

President Barack Obama has pledged to rebuild all three legs of the nuclear triad — ICBMs, submarines and bombers — at an estimated cost of $1 trillion over 30 years.

Congress has tentatively lined up behind the Minuteman replacement effort that Defense Secretary Ashton Carter has said is vital to national security.

“If we don’t replace these systems, quite simply they will age even more and become unsafe, unreliable and ineffective,” Carter told troops at Minot last month.

“The fact is, most of our nuclear weapon delivery systems have already been extended decades beyond their original expected service lives. So it’s not a choice between replacing these platforms or keeping them. It’s really a choice between replacing them or losing them,” he said.

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Brendan McGarry
Brendan McGarry is the managing editor of Military.com. He can be reached at brendan.mcgarry@military.com. Follow him on Twitter at @Brendan_McGarry.