Blown cost projection for new nuclear missile underscores case against building it
Special to Stars and Stripes February 11, 2024
Like a bolt from the blue, the Pentagon’s program for building a new nuclear intercontinental ballistic missile, known as the LGM-35A Sentinel, has blown past its most recent baseline cost projection to the point of triggering an automatic review of the program. Lt. Gen. Rick Moore, the Air Force deputy chief of staff for plans and programs, has since insisted that “We will have to find the money. Sentinel is going to be funded.” While some members of Congress, along with a chorus of national security professionals, have lined up to back the program despite its ballooning cost to taxpayers, the debate is far from one-sided. Ultimately, it’s up to the secretary of defense to determine whether to restructure the program or terminate it following the review. The latter choice would be wiser.
Whatever strategic value nuclear ICBMs may have held in the past, in our current security environment, they serve as little more than a bottomless pit, deeper than the massive silos they’re housed in, into which the Pentagon throws taxpayers’ hard-earned money.
Initial estimates placed the Pentagon’s investment in Sentinel at $95 billion, but recent updates have raised the total to over $125 billion. Each missile’s Program Acquisition Unit Cost (PAUC) was initially set at $118 million, now projected at $162 million — a 37% increase.
Under 1980’s Nunn-McCurdy Act, significant cost overruns in a major Pentagon acquisition program require the Office of the Secretary of Defense report the breach to Congress. A critical breach, when the PAUC projections exceed the original baseline estimate by at least 50%, or when they exceed the current baseline estimate by at least 25% (as in the case of the Sentinel), requires the secretary of defense to reassess the program and either terminate it or certify that the program is essential to national security, that new cost estimates are reasonable, that the program is higher priority than whatever programs will lose funding to cover the cost of the increase, and that the program’s management structure can control future cost growth.
The Sentinel is meant to replace the LGM-30G Minutemen III ICBMs, as part of a broader effort to revamp the U.S. nuclear arsenal. This arsenal forms a nuclear triad, including submarines, bombers and land-based ICBMs.
Proponents of the Sentinel argue it’s necessary to maintain strategic deterrence — essentially to convince other nuclear-armed nations that a nuclear attack against us would trigger a catastrophic retaliatory nuclear strike. The reality is that our nuclear-armed submarines alone are more than capable of fulfilling this deterrent role. The Navy currently ensures that at least 10 of its 14 Ohio-class nuclear-armed ballistic missile submarines are operational at any given moment. It’s also currently in the process of buying 12 new Columbia-class nuclear-armed submarines to replace the Ohio-class fleet. Each Ohio-class submarine is equipped with 20 submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) capable of carrying multiple nuclear warheads. The Columbia-class subs will each carry 16 SLMBs. More importantly, these submarines represent the most secure leg of the nuclear triad — they’re simply too stealthy for an adversary to reliably detect. Plus, an adversary would need to find and destroy quite a few of them in a short window of time to forestall a nuclear retaliation. Even if emerging technologies or unforeseen events jeopardize the submarine fleet, our nuclear-armed bombers remain as a backup.
Another popular argument among ICBM boosters is that these missiles would serve as a “sponge” in a nuclear war, absorbing some of an adversary’s nuclear missiles. This assumes that an adversary would need to target our ICBMs to prevent their use in a retaliatory strike. However, this line of reasoning, reminiscent of “Dr. Strangelove,” does not prioritize safety. The concept of “absorbing” a barrage of nuclear missiles overlooks the catastrophic impact this would have on communities in Colorado, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota and Wyoming, located near ICBM launch sites, and the potentially widespread radioactive contamination. The primary motive seems to be justifying the expenditure of billions on missiles unnecessary for deterrence. Furthermore, the development of hypersonic missile technology could render U.S. ICBMs vulnerable to non-nuclear attacks by adversaries before the Sentinel’s service life ends. This would diminish their supposed value as a nuclear “sponge” and could create complex retaliation and escalation dynamics.
The inertia of Cold War military doctrines that no longer make sense, if they ever did, and the outsized influence of the military industry in national security planning, are all that stand in the way of saving taxpayers billions of dollars and reducing the risk of a catastrophic nuclear exchange. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin should take the opportunity of the Sentinel’s Nunn-McCurdy breach to not only reevaluate the program, but the antiquated logic underpinning it. An honest assessment would determine that maintaining the ICBM force is no longer in the strategic interest of the United States. Failing this, Congress should intervene on the taxpayers’ behalf to defund the Sentinel and advance plans to decommission the current ICBM force.
Gabe Murphy is a policy analyst at Taxpayers for Common Sense, a nonpartisan budget watchdog advocating for transparency and calling out wasteful spending.