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Cost to Test U.S. Global-Strike Missile Could Reach $500 Million

By Elaine M. Grossman

Global Security Newswire

(Mar. 15) -The Pentagon could spend up to $500 million to flight-test the first conventional “prompt global strike” weapon, expected to use "hypersonic test vehicle" technology shown in the above diagram (U.S. Defense Department image). (Mar. 15) -The Pentagon could spend up to $500 million to flight-test the first conventional “prompt global strike” weapon, expected to use "hypersonic test vehicle" technology shown in the above diagram (U.S. Defense Department image).

WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Defense Department could spend as much as a half-billion dollars to flight-test a new conventionally armed ballistic missile with a sophisticated capability to destroy targets virtually anywhere around the world, Global Security Newswire has learned (see GSN, July 1, 2009).

Obama administration officials are touting the emerging technology as a partial alternative to nuclear weapons. Conventional "prompt global strike" arms could be used against targets thousands of miles away that must be dealt with quickly, from al-Qaeda safe havens along the Pakistani-Afghan border or an impending North Korean nuclear-armed missile being readied for launch.

The only hitch is that the premier weapon system for the Pentagon's conventional prompt global strike mission -- the Air Force's Conventional Strike Missile -- is in the throes of cost hikes and management tangles that could complicate hopes for rapid fielding.

Senior defense officials, aware that a more public role for the weapon is likely to attract additional congressional scrutiny, are seeking greater cost and planning discipline in the Conventional Strike Missile effort.

The heads of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center -- the two agencies directly overseeing the missile project -- are forming an independent analytical team to "scrub" costs and plans, according to sources closely tracking the matter.

Neither of the two organizations would respond to detailed questions about the impending "Red Team's" work.

Senior administration officials, though, are publicly citing the Pentagon's development of conventional prompt global strike hardware as evidence of the president's commitment to reducing the role of nuclear arms in the U.S. national security strategy, as he promised last year during a speech in Prague.

"While nuclear weapons have a clear role, our deterrent extends beyond nuclear weapons," Undersecretary of State Ellen Tauscher said at a conference last month. "Our improving conventional capabilities make it possible to reduce our reliance on nuclear weapons for some targets and missions. As our conventional weapons have become more precise, we do not have to cling to nuclear weapons to accomplish our objectives."

The White House is expected to cite rising reliance on conventional deterrence for a move to make deep cuts in the stockpile of nondeployed nuclear weapons (see GSN, March 1).

The Air Force's Conventional Strike Missile will likely be the first prompt global strike weapon to be deployed, but its initial fielding date has slipped from 2015 to potentially as late as 2017, according to those closely tracking the program.

Its ready availability, once on station, could help bolster deterrence, military officials argue. If it performs as advertised, the weapon would initially boost into space like a ballistic missile, dispatch a "hypersonic test vehicle" to glide and maneuver into a programmed destination, which could be updated or altered remotely during flight. Finally, it would dispense precision-guided munitions to hit its target.

Traveling at speeds exceeding Mach 5, the weapon could go from initial launch to destroying a target halfway around the globe in less than an hour.

A U.S. president might be more likely to approve the launch of a Conventional Strike Missile because it would involve fewer negative consequences and less stigma than nuclear weapons, government officials assert. Given the weapon's potential use against nuclear proliferators and terrorist networks, U.S. officials argue the new technologies will better enable them to address today's most troubling threats.

As it stands, the capability is very expensive, with per-weapon estimates approaching $100 million or more (see GSN, Nov. 26, 2008).

Due to the high price tag, U.S. military officials generally imagine prompt global strike weapons like the Air Force missile as a niche capability.

"There is a place, I think, for that kind of capability," Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz said last Wednesday at a House subcommittee hearing. "I don't think that that's the sort of thing you would use broadly, because ... fundamentally what you don't want to have is [notionally] a $300 million weapon applied against a $30,000 target."

The top combatant commander in charge of nuclear weapons, Gen. Kevin Chilton, has said an initial capability might consist of a single weapon put on alert at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, with two spares held in reserve (see GSN, Sept. 3, 2008).

However, even reaching that point is taking some heavy lifting. Air Force program officials have reportedly estimated that a first full demonstration of the Conventional Strike Missile capability could cost roughly $250 million, and have left open the possibility that the test planned for 2012 could run even as high as twice that figure, sources tell GSN.

Two initial technology demonstrations -- one next month and another slated for January 2011 -- are aimed at showing that key components of the system perform as designed, according to expert sources. These events reportedly include in-flight control over the test vehicle and the use of kinetic energy projectiles against notional targets.

During the more pivotal flight demonstration slated for 2012, the service would aim to show that a Conventional Strike Missile is essentially ready to field. This Air Force test would involve launching a "weaponized" system from Vandenberg and measuring its accuracy in hitting a dummy target, these sources said.

The higher funding figures would give the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center in Los Angeles -- currently overseeing expenditures on the program -- more confidence that the 2012 demonstration could be conducted successfully and on time, according to some officials. Given the uncertainties, the demonstration might not take place until 2013, program officials reportedly are warning.

The Defense Department would not spell out details explaining the technical risks that could hike costs or delay the Conventional Strike Missile demonstration schedule.

A U.S. government official, responding to a reporter's questions on condition of not being named, hinted that the 2012 demonstration might be delayed, pointing to a delay in this year's test of the hypersonic test vehicle as affecting subsequent work. The April 2010 test vehicle demonstration was earlier slated to take place late last year, sources said.

Still, other defense officials and experts doubt there is enough technological risk involved in the 2012 demonstration effort to further delay it or justify a roughly $500 million price tag. The Space and Missile Systems Center has repeatedly gone over budget on its developmental and procurement programs, a history that could weigh down the emerging Conventional Strike Missile effort, proponents worry.

"The Space and Missile System Center sees this as a cash cow to pay for their overhead," said one industry official. "Our satellite programs are always over budget."

Because the expense estimates range so broadly, the Air Force and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency -- which have teamed up on the missile effort -- this month scrambled to create a Red Team to consider program plans and costs, officials told GSN.

The idea is to get a better handle on costs and additional confidence on the fielding schedule prior to congressional testimony by senior defense officials about nuclear and conventional deterrence over the next few months, according to sources. Defense leaders anticipate that the Red Team analysis -- to be performed independently by as-yet unnamed retired senior military officers -- will be completed this month or next.

Without commenting on plans for the Red Team, the U.S. government official noted that "the full extent of the [Conventional Strike Missile] testing cost and schedule restructure will not be understood until the first [hypersonic test vehicle] flight occurs later this year."

The Obama administration has requested $239.9 million for prompt global strike research and development across the military services in fiscal 2011. Though the Air Force's Conventional Strike Missile is the lead design for prompt global strike, Pentagon civilians have retained control over a multiservice funding pot, annually doling out a portion of the appropriated monies to the Navy and Army, as well.

If funding levels remain as anticipated into the coming years, the Pentagon will have spent some $2 billion on prompt global strike by the end of fiscal 2015, according to budget documents submitted last month to Capitol Hill.

The documentation characterizes the Conventional Strike Missile as "the lead design to demonstrate a possible materiel solution for the CPGS [conventional prompt global strike] warfighting capability gap."

A competing Army technology concept for an Advanced Hypersonic Weapon, which has survived on congressional earmarks for several years, now is seen as offering a backup glide-vehicle design that could be used if the Air Force's hypersonic test vehicle falls short, according to the Pentagon submission.

"In [fiscal] 2011, funding for each of the individual service initiatives will be contingent upon their abilities to execute and achieve satisfactory progress towards project goals as determined by the CPGS portfolio manager," the Defense Department stated.

Though Chilton initially called for fielding an initial Conventional Strike Missile by 2012, the date has been repeatedly pushed back. The Pentagon's prompt global strike portfolio manager told an industry audience in Monterey, Calif., in January that he does not anticipate deciding which technology to deploy until five demonstrations have been carried out, which could take until 2013 or beyond.

However, the Air Force is finding it difficult to plan and manage such a major program without more direct control over how much annual funding the Conventional Strike Missile program specifically will receive in the coming years, according to some officials.

The multiservice funding mechanism -- which was instituted to assure Congress that the Pentagon was exploring new technologies to substitute for a politically unpopular Navy concept for prompt global strike -- might no longer be desirable if the new focus is on quickly placing an initial Conventional Strike Missile in the field, some defense officials are arguing.

That might soon change. Air Force Secretary Michael Donley, testifying last week before a House panel, said the Pentagon's acquisition chief is giving his service greater management authority over prompt global strike.

"The prompt global strike work had been a little bit federated over the last couple of years; there have been a couple of different r&d; lines and different projects under that umbrella," Donley said March 10 at a House Appropriations defense subcommittee hearing. "Dr. [Ashton] Carter has asked the Air Force to help pull that together and manage it as a whole, going forward."

Complicating matters is that the Air Force appears to be shifting managerial oversight for the program from its Space Command, based in Colorado Springs, Colo., to the new Global Strike Command, headquartered at Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana, according to some officials.

The Defense Department declined to respond to a reporter's question about the anticipated program transition inside the Air Force.

Part of an effort to overhaul management of nuclear weapons, Global Strike Command now oversees nuclear-capable bomber aircraft and ICBMs (see GSN, Jan, 27). The organization will not be fully operational, though, until Sept. 30, and it does not currently have full oversight responsibility for the Conventional Strike Missile.

Splits in responsibility for the program are taking some of the focus and drive away from high-level Pentagon directives aimed at fielding an initial missile system as soon as possible, some defense officials said.

Even before Global Strike Command opened its doors, the Conventional Strike Missile effort was "an orphan child" at Space Command, fitting into neither of the organization's main efforts -- space launch and ICBMs, said one issue expert who asked not to be named.

Though Space Command had earlier been expected to draft a document outlining combat requirements for the Conventional Strike Missile, that has not yet happened.

"Requirements are still being refined and there is presently no timetable established for their completion," said the U.S. government official, adding that a formal document laying out warfighter needs would be "premature" because no official acquisition program has been created yet for conventional prompt global strike.

"This is a failed [effort] lying on the floor, and no one wants to clean it up," the industry official said.

It might fall to Congress to take the next move, as lawmakers debate how -- and how much -- to appropriate for prompt global strike in the fiscal 2011 budget.

Meanwhile, "DOD will submit new-start program documentation to Congress for approval when it is determined hypersonic technologies are mature enough to transition to a service for execution," the U.S. government official stated.

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