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U.S. Air Force Locates Funds for Future-ICBM Studies

By Elaine M. Grossman

Global Security Newswire

(Mar. 23) -A U.S. Minuteman 3 ICBM takes off in a test flight. The Obama administration's fiscal 2012 budget proposal includes $2.6 million to study technology options for a potential successor to the missile, the Air Force has said (U.S. Air Force photo). (Mar. 23) -A U.S. Minuteman 3 ICBM takes off in a test flight. The Obama administration's fiscal 2012 budget proposal includes $2.6 million to study technology options for a potential successor to the missile, the Air Force has said (U.S. Air Force photo).

WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Air Force has identified $2.6 million in fiscal 2012 to study technology options for a future ICBM, after a number of senior officials insisted last month that the president's budget request included no such funds (see GSN, Feb. 15).

The service's latest statement about the availability of 2012 funds for assessing replacement options for today's Minuteman 3 nuclear-armed ballistic missiles -- provided in response to Global Security Newswire questions -- appeared aimed at clearing up a succession of confusing assertions.

An Energy Department report in November raised anticipation on Capitol Hill that the Obama administration would invest $26 million annually, ostensibly beginning in the current budget year, to carry out a "Capabilities Based Assessment" for a new ground-based ballistic missile to replace the Minuteman 3 ICBMs. Those missiles, first fielded in 1970, are to retire in 2030.

However, Air Force spokesman Andre Kok stated in the February 24 responses that the figure cited by the Energy Department's so-called "Section 1251 Update Report" late last year was "incorrect."

The report was a congressionally mandated document that the White House has cited as substantiation that it is aggressively pursuing modernization of the aging U.S. strategic nuclear weapons arsenal (see GSN, Nov. 22, 2010).

As the Obama administration last year pursued Republican support for the New START nuclear arms control pact with Russia, the White House 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.

The service now plans to spend roughly $26 million on ICBM analyses over a three-year period between fiscal 2012 and 2014, beginning with the $2.6 million in the budget year that begins on October 1. Plans are for the initial installment to lay "the groundwork for analysis supporting future weapon systems development and deployment" and conduct "pre-milestone activities," the spokesman said. The Air Force was unable by press time to say exactly what these activities involve.

The Defense Department will offer more details about its expenditures for the subsequent two years as plans for the fiscal 2013 budget request are unveiled early next year, Kok told GSN late last month.

Nonetheless, the Obama administration is now faced with a perception among some of its critics on Capitol Hill that, as the White House lobbied for New START ratification last fall, officials "tried to make it sound like they were committing a lot more money [for ICBM modernization studies] than turns out to be so," one senior Senate aide said this week. The staffer was not authorized to address the issue publicly and requested anonymity.

The Senate ratified the U.S.-Russian agreement just before Christmas and the pact -- which limits each side's strategic nuclear warheads to 1,550 and delivery vehicles to 800 -- entered into force early last month.

The nation today fields 450 Minuteman 3 missiles, but under New START will retain no more than 420 of the ICBMs, each armed with a single nuclear warhead. Washington and Moscow have seven years to implement all their reductions.

Confusion over ICBM funding began when Marilyn Thomas, an Air Force budget deputy, said at a February 14 press conference that service plans for 2012 did not include any dollars to study replacement-missile technology options. Defense Department comptroller Robert Hale initially said the money was there, but his office subsequently concurred with Thomas that it was not.

Senator Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said he regarded the reported omission of funds for studying next-generation ICBM options as a sign of the administration's "gradual retreat" from nuclear modernization commitments made last fall (see GSN, Feb. 18).

The service told GSN in late February, though, that it had identified the $2.6 million in 2012 funds in a long-range planning budget line item for ICBM "demonstration and validation," which would be used to underwrite the new analyses.

The Air Force this week was unable to explain whether Thomas and Hale were mistaken in their mid-February comments, or if instead there was some way to square the conflicting statements about ICBM study money.

Meanwhile, the service's late-February responses to questions included another slight departure from the 1251 update report, which stated in November that "the Capabilities-Based Assessment for the ICBM follow-on system is under way."

In fact, the service did not kick off work on the preliminary assessment until this year, on January 11, according to information the Air Force provided to Congress last month.

"In January of 2011 we started a Capability-Based Assessment using internally sourced funds of approximately $1 million that will produce an Initial Capabilities Document," Kok acknowledged in his written responses to GSN questions. He was referring to a text that will outline the missile's desired military requirements for speed, range, payload capacity and other features.

The Air Force Global Strike Command, headquartered at Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana, is leading the effort to study options for the future ICBM, which the service has dubbed the "Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent."

The service rounded up the money to begin the initial capabilities analysis this year by reprogramming "excess funds" from its "aerial targets" account, the spokesman said. Air Force officials estimate that they will complete that analysis and the Initial Capabilities Document by the end of June.

The next step would be to launch a more in-depth study called an "Analysis of Alternatives," which the 1251 Update Report said would begin in fiscal 2012. That analysis "will determine the best ICBM follow-on option from a broad range of options -- from full replacement to sustainment of the current ICBM beyond 2030," the Air Force spokesman said.

However, this more advanced Analysis of Alternatives appears to have encountered some delays, compared to the time line laid out in last November's Energy Department report. The service told Capitol Hill last month that it would undertake only "pre-AOA" activities in fiscal 2012, such as honing the military concept for the future ICBM system and describing its desired technical capabilities.

Seeing the analysis begun in earnest will take another year.

"On the ICBM, we currently have a mission analysis under way that will lead to a formal Analysis of Alternatives in '13 and that's when it will be funded," Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz testified on February 17 at a House Armed Services Committee hearing.

With the dollar figures for the ICBM studies considered relatively small change in the context of the $671 billion Defense budget request for fiscal 2012, the focus on Capitol Hill appears to be trained more on how the administration is handling strategic nuclear program priorities.

"The money isn't so much the issue now," the senior Senate staffer said this week. "We will be watching ICBM issues in terms of the AOA and how New START is implemented."

Several of the 26 Republicans who voted against treaty ratification can be expected to keep close tabs on how the Obama administration carries out treaty reductions and how aggressively it moves to modernize aging systems.

"For example, do they keep the nondeployed silos warm or cold?" said the Senate staffer, referring to a state of readiness that might -- or might not -- allow the 30 off-line ICBMs to return to deployed status in the event of a resurgent nuclear threat or a big technical failure in another leg of the triad.

Conservative lawmakers -- particularly legislators in Montana, North Dakota and Wyoming, where ICBMs are based -- can be expected to argue that "cold" storage for nondeployed ballistic missiles is unacceptable because these missiles could no longer serve as a ready "hedge" force, this congressional aide and others said.

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