WASHINGTON — Two US Air Force nuclear-modernization programs are expected to move forward soon, with the service projecting to release a request for proposals for its Ground Based Strategic Deterrent Program this summer and the clearing of a programmatic hurdle for a new nuclear-armed cruise missile expected within weeks, a key official said.
The White House’s nominee for the next Air Force chief of staff, Gen. David Goldfein, voiced his support for both programs Thursday. Speaking to the Senate Armed Services Committee during his confirmation hearing, he told lawmakers the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD) is set for a Milestone A decision in August.
"We expect to put out a request for proposals to industry within the next two weeks,” he said. Also during that time, the service will make a Milestone A decision on the Long Range Stand-Off (LRSO) weapon, a cruise missile that can be conventionally or nuclear armed.
GBSD is planned to replace the Minuteman III Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM). In order to save money, the Air Force intends to reuse existing silos, but outfit them with new weapons.
LRSO would replace the Air-Launched Cruise Missile (ALCM), which are slated to phase out of in inventory beginning in 2030. About 1,000 to 1,100 new LRSO missiles are planned to be purchased during the program’s lifetime.
Both GBSD and LRSO have been vulnerable to attack from policymakers who have said the weapons duplicate capabilities found elsewhere, while being expensive to develop and acquire during a budget-constrained environment. This afternoon, for example, House lawmakers defeated an amendment to the defense spending bill that would have defunded the LRSO program in fiscal year 2017.
Air Force leaders, however, remain adamant that both are vital for preserving the U.S. nuclear capability.
“The Air Force fully supports the President’s commitment to maintaining a credible and effective nuclear triad—both GBSD and LRSO are essential to that effort,” Goldfein stated in advance questions made available to lawmakers before his confirmation hearing.
Sen. Joe Donnelly, D-Ind., asked whether the Air Force planned to collaborate with the Navy, which is currently modernizing its own nuclear assets.
"I think it's a historic opportunity to leverage research and development, common parts and lessons learned from the Navy's recent Trident modernization program, which can reduce risk, enhance savings—which are critical—and field an extremely capable follow-on in Minuteman III."
There are similarities between how the Navy and Air Force are approaching their nuclear modernization programs, said Goldfein.
"GBSD, one of the aspects of that is that it’s an enterprise approach. So as we field that weapon system, it's actually not just the missile, it's the missile, it’s the launcher, it's the command and control,” he said. "The Navy does the same thing when they look at the submarine force.”
The Air Force released a draft RFP for the GBSD Technology Maturation and Risk Reduction contract in January. According to a solicitation posted online, the service could award up to two contracts spanning 36 months of work. An award is expected in the summer 2017.
Meanwhile, a Defense Acquisition Board review for LRSO was held in May, Air Force spokesman Maj. Rob Leese said in an email. Leese declined to comment on the outcome of the meeting, which provides a forum for Defense Department senior leaders to discuss a program’s status.