WASHINGTON — The U.S. Defense Department must be allowed to press forward with replacing its Cold War-era Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles, the head of U.S. Strategic Command said Tuesday.

“You cannot life-extend Minuteman III,” said Adm. Charles Richard, who spoke with reporters during a Defense Writers Group event. “It is getting past the point of [where] it’s not cost-effective to life-extend Minuteman III. You’re quickly getting to the point [where] you can’t do it at all.”

Richard’s comments come about two weeks before the Jan. 20 inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden, who is expected to review the nation’s nuclear arsenal and could possibly roll back changes made under the Trump administration.

Although the next-generation ICBM program — known as the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent — was supported by the Obama administration, arms control groups have urged lawmakers to consider delaying the GBSD effort to save money.

Richard told reporters that is not an option, given the age and obsolescence of the system of the LGM-30G Minuteman III.

“That thing is so old that in some cases the [technical] drawings don’t exist anymore, or where we do have drawings, they’re like six generations behind the industry standard,” he said. “And there’s not only [no one] working that can understand them — they’re not alive anymore.”

The Air Force chose Northrop Grumman to build GBSD in September, awarding the company a $13.3 billion contract for the engineering and manufacturing development stage of the program. Boeing, the only other competitor for the program, opted not to bid for the contract over concerns that Northrop’s acquisition of Orbital ATK — a key propulsion supplier — had tilted the competition in Northrop’s favor.

GBSD is set to begin replacing the Minuteman III in 2029.

The Air Force has touted GBSD as more accurate and reliable than its predecessor. Another important characteristic is its enhanced security, said Richard, who contrasted the “60-year-old … circuit switch system” of the Minuteman III to the modern and resilient cyber architecture that GBSD will have.

“This nation has never before had to face the prospect of two peer, nuclear-capable adversaries who have to be deterred differently,” he said, referring to Russia and China. “Actions done to deter one [country] have an impact on the other. This is way more complicated than it used to be. [GBSD] is an example of a capability we’re going to have to have to address threats like that.”

Defense experts anticipate that — like most other new presidential administrations — the Biden administration will likely conduct a nuclear posture review to reassess the United States’ nuclear capabilities and ensure the military is poised to deter Russia, China, North Korea, Iran and other actors with nuclear weapons.

Richards said he would “welcome” that review, as U.S. adversaries may have fielded new capabilities since the last review was published in 2018. However, an assessment that focuses only on the nuclear arsenal may be too narrowly defined, he added.

“We face global threats. And then to parse our examination of those [threats] into a nuclear posture review or missile defense review, a space review, a cyber review, kind of misses the totality of what the strategic threat to this nation and our allies are,” he said. “I would recommend a broader-base strategic review, as opposed to parsing it out in pieces.”

Valerie Insinna is Defense News' air warfare reporter. She previously worked the Navy/congressional beats for Defense Daily, which followed almost three years as a staff writer for National Defense Magazine. Prior to that, she worked as an editorial assistant for the Tokyo Shimbun’s Washington bureau.

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