Kirtland Air Force Base, N.M. – The Air Force is preparing for major test requirements on the Ground Base Strategic Deterrent (GBSD) program, with one official saying the service's testing office is preparing as if the nuclear weapon program would cost more than the F-35 fighter jet.

It is highly unlikely GBSD will eclipses the joint strike fighter for the dubious award of most expensive Pentagon program in history, but the official said the that Air Force Operational Test and Evaluation Center (AFOTEC) is faced with so many unknowns about the modernization plan for the intercontinental ballistic missile fleet that he would not rule anything out.

The replacement for the Minuteman III ICBM could be "one of the largest ever" programs, the official said.

In an attempt to get ahead of testing requirements, AFOTEC has requested that GBSD be designated a "very large" program, with the official – speaking to reporters on background during a visit to the base with Secretary of Defense Ash Carter – saying that designation would be included in the service's fiscal year 2018 request.

That label means the unit will be able to have an extra funding stream to help cope with the testing expenses. While the designation will begin in FY18, the program will likely not begin testing for five or six years, the official said. Right now, there is one representative from AFOTEC working on the matter, trying to gather information and figure out what comes next.

The official said the test group was bracing for a massive wave of future testing requirements, which could be particularly tricky given how long it has been since the Air Force attempted to create a new ICBM design.

Last week, Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James said that uncertainty about how long developing such a program could take, and what the challenges are, clouds where the cost estimates may end up.

Speaking yesterday at Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota, Carter emphasized the importance of the GBSD program, saying in a speech that the nuclear force is the "bedrock" of American stability.

The current generation of ICBM's are "still preforming excellently and is a strong deterrent, but it is getting older," Carter told reporters.

Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.

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