U.S. Air Force Changes Mind -- Again -- on Funds to Study ICBM Options

(Apr. 22) -A U.S. Minuteman 3 ICBM lifts off in a 1980 test launch at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. The U.S. Air Force is unable to specify a planned fiscal 2012 funding level for studying future ICBM modernization options (U.S. Defense Department photo).
(Apr. 22) -A U.S. Minuteman 3 ICBM lifts off in a 1980 test launch at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. The U.S. Air Force is unable to specify a planned fiscal 2012 funding level for studying future ICBM modernization options (U.S. Defense Department photo).

WASHINGTON -- More than two months after the Obama administration submitted its fiscal 2012 budget request to Congress, the U.S. Air Force cannot say exactly how much it will spend to explore options for modernizing its ICBM fleet, nor where the money will come from (see GSN, March 23).

Relatively small dollar amounts are involved: probably less than $3 million as part of a $671 billion Defense Department budget for the next fiscal year.

However, repeated Air Force fumbling over whether it programmed 2012 funds to study future ICBM options has offered political grist to Senate Republicans who question whether President Obama is seriously committed to updating aging U.S. nuclear weapons and their delivery platforms.

Senator Lindsey Graham has said he suspects the funding lapse constitutes the beginning of "a gradual retreat" from the administration's nuclear modernization promises (see GSN, Feb. 18).

A top Air Force budget official and the Pentagon comptroller's office said in February the service had requested no funds for work next year on an "Analysis of Alternatives" for a future ICBM fleet, to be deployed following the anticipated 2030 retirement of today's Minuteman 3 fleet.

This was despite an Energy Department report last November stating that a preliminary ICBM study, termed a "Capabilities-Based Assessment," was already "under way" and funded at "approximately $26 million per year" (see GSN, Feb. 15).

Together, the preliminary assessment and the more advanced Analysis of Alternatives represent an important step in the defense acquisition process, one in which future missile technology alternatives and potential fielding options are to be explored. A replacement for today's Minuteman 3 missiles -- based in underground silos -- might be smaller and possibly deployed aboard mobile platforms such as trucks or trains, according to experts.

The Obama team last fall repeatedly cited the Energy Department's so-called "Section 1251 Report Update" as an indication of its commitment to modernize nuclear weapons and delivery systems in cultivating Senate Republican support for ratifying New START, a U.S.-Russian nuclear arms control treaty. The document summarized administration plans for rebuilding the nation's Cold War-era nuclear weapons complex and updating the atomic arsenal.

The Senate in December approved the arms control pact in a tally that included 13 GOP votes (see GSN, Dec. 22, 2010).

Last month, though, an Air Force spokesman said the service had in fact included only $2.6 million in its new budget plan to study ICBM technology options, funded in a line item dedicated to long-range planning for ICBM "demonstration and validation."

This figure was just one-tenth of the funds promised in the Energy Department report, but the service insisted that the earlier $26 million commitment was in error and that the lower dollar amount would be sufficient. Rather than initiate the Analysis of Alternatives in 2012, as pledged in the Section 1251 report, the Air Force would continue with preparatory studies next year and launch the formal analysis in 2013 instead.

Experts say the Air Force decision to take a one-year slip in the major study's start date -- a delay that the service has not publicly justified -- could mean the Pentagon will be unready to brief the president by 2014 on a recommended "specific way-ahead for an ICBM follow-on," as laid out by the Energy Department's November report.

The funding uncertainties and apparent delays are gaining broader notice this spring on Capitol Hill, according to one nuclear weapons consultant, who asked not to be named because of the issue's political sensitivity. A number of lawmakers in both parties are increasingly disturbed by a growing perception that ICBM modernization is not garnering the level of Air Force attention and commitment that it deserves, the consultant said.

The Air Force is currently spending roughly $1 million in fiscal 2011 funds on the initial Capabilities-Based Analysis, which began in January and should be complete by July, the spokesman said last month. The service now expects that the total cost for the ICBM Analysis of Alternatives will be $26 million, to be spent between 2012 and 2014.

Last week, however, the Air Force changed its story yet again. In a written statement, the service backed off of the $2.6 million spending pledge for 2012, saying those funds were actually allocated for other ICBM studies unrelated to the Analysis of Alternatives.

"Currently, there is a $2.6 [million] line item in the [fiscal 2012] budget," but it pays for studies that "are not part of the ICBM Follow-on Materiel Solution Analysis," the service stated in written "talking points" released to Global Security Newswire. Fiscal 2012 begins on October 1.

"The AOA can be accomplished in this line item as long as appropriate funding is added to support the effort," said the Air Force, referring to the Analysis of Alternatives.

The service was unable to say by press time exactly how much funding would be appropriate or specify the source of dollars to pay for the study work next year. The April 12 talking points paper did say the Air Force would "internally source" funds for this purpose in fiscal 2012, suggesting it would leech a limited amount of money from other programs.

As for the $2.6 million line item, the service instead will use those funds to underwrite studies on ICBM launch facility security, emergency air supplies for launch control centers, power storage technologies, and concepts for testing missile guidance, according to its talking points paper.

In walking away from its statement last month that it would spend the $2.6 million on the ICBM modernization studies -- an effort the White House identified as a priority last fall -- the Air Force has left several issue experts flummoxed.

"I'm sympathetic to claims of confusion within big bureaucracies, but this is perilous territory," said Christopher Ford, who directs the Hudson Institute's Center for Technology and Global Security. "The administration's credibility is on the line as a team that takes seriously the imperatives of maintaining an effective deterrent into the indefinite future until such time, if ever, that the president's talk of 'zero' bears fruit."

Obama in a 2009 speech in Prague pledged to take "concrete steps towards a world without nuclear weapons." At the same time, he said that as long as these weapons exist, the nation "will maintain a safe, secure and effective arsenal to deter any adversary."

Ford said the service's apparent omission of funds to begin the Analysis of Alternatives in 2012 was "a heck of an unfortunate thing to just forget," given that the White House "sold New START in part on the strength of promises to ensure modernization."

The White House last fall pledged to spend $85 billion over the next decade updating warheads and modernizing the nuclear weapons complex. It is also expected to invest hundreds of billions more on delivery platforms such as submarines, missiles and bomber aircraft.

At Obama's behest last year, the Pentagon is now eyeing the possibility of taking new reductions to the strategic nuclear arsenal below the levels set by the New START agreement (see GSN, March 23). The move has some conservatives concerned about the prospects that deeper cuts could spell doom for the ambitious nuclear modernization efforts they support.

Senator Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), who led GOP opposition to ratifying New START, last month released a letter signed by 41 Senate Republicans urging the Obama administration not to take any such cuts without consulting closely with Congress.

"It would be troubling if the administration proposed reductions to U.S. nuclear forces that reduced your commitment to modernize U.S. nuclear warheads, the triad of delivery systems, and the nuclear weapons infrastructure at at least the levels you proposed and pledged during the New START treaty ratification process," the lawmakers said.

Under the treaty, which caps each side's deployed strategic warheads at 1,550 and delivery systems at 700, the United States has said it would retain no more than 420 Minuteman 3 ICBMs. Today the nation has 450 fielded ICBMs.

At an April 6 hearing of the Senate Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee, Ranking Member Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) voiced worries that the Obama administration might delay or modify its plans to modernize ICBMs as further reductions to the strategic nuclear arsenal are contemplated.

"One of the biggest unanswered questions in the future is the ICBM force," he said. "I am very concerned."

Sessions noted that last year's Nuclear Posture Review, a major Pentagon assessment of atomic forces and strategy, said the ICBM Analysis of Alternatives would seek "cost-effective" deployment options that support "continued reductions in U.S. nuclear weapons while promoting stable deterrence."

None of the military brass testifying at the subcommittee hearing could elaborate on the meaning of that passage in the review. They did say, though, that the ICBM fleet might well drop below the 420 missiles the administration spelled out as a maximum level under the terms of the new U.S.-Russian agreement.

"If further policy looks are made at further reductions we are not yet tasked to go any further" below the levels laid out by New START, said Maj. Gen. William Chambers, the Air Force assistant chief of staff for strategic deterrence and nuclear integration. "So the 'up to 420' is our guiding baseline right now."

That said, the Air Force is currently "wrestling" with the question of whether the Minuteman 3 force should be reduced to 400 deployed missiles under New START, Lt. Gen. James Kowalski, commander of the Air Force Global Strike Command, said at the hearing. A decision is expected "within the next few months," he said.

Ford called into question whether uncertainty about bankrolling the upcoming ICBM modernization studies is a sign that the Air Force continues to struggle with its nuclear mission, following "a long decline in attention and an embarrassing record of occasional mistakes since the end of the Cold War."

The service in late 2006 accidentally shipped four nuclear missile fuses to Taiwan, and in August 2007 mistakenly allowed a B-52 bomber to transport six nuclear-armed cruise missiles across several U.S. states, among other mishaps. The Air Force subsequently reorganized its management of the mission, to include the creation of Global Strike Command, whose focus is primarily on nuclear-armed bombers and ICBMs.

From the perspective of some arms control advocates, though, the White House should think twice before investing heavily in any new missile system to replace the Minuteman 3, which was first fielded in 1970.

"Problems funding the first new ICBM studies may be mere bureaucratic lapses," said Stephen Young, a senior analyst with the Union of Concerned Scientists. "Whatever the reason, I would hope one of the options considered would be to not build a new ICBM."

In light of Obama's objective of ultimately eliminating the world's nuclear weapons, Young rued the administration decision in the run-up to New START ratification to issue "essentially ironclad guarantees that it would replace or modernize each leg of the triad," he said. This was despite earlier hints in the Nuclear Posture Review that the White House would reserve judgment on whether to replace each type of strategic delivery vehicle, Young said.

Ford offered a different view.

"If President Obama wants to be taken seriously as a responsible steward of our nuclear deterrent, his team can't afford to 'forget' modernization again," he said.

April 22, 2011

WASHINGTON -- More than two months after the Obama administration submitted its fiscal 2012 budget request to Congress, the U.S. Air Force cannot say exactly how much it will spend to explore options for modernizing its ICBM fleet, nor where the money will come from (see GSN, March 23).