Nuclear missiles

US awards contracts for nuclear missile system replacement

Image credit: Dreamstime

The Pentagon has announced that the US Air Force has awarded contracts to Boeing and Northrop Grumman to continue to engineer a replacement for the ageing American intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) system.

The Minuteman III is the only land-based ICBM system in the US, and is designed to be launched at a moment’s notice. The first Minuteman began development in the 1950s, and the Minuteman III entered service in 1970. It is one pillar of the US ‘nuclear triad’: the others being the Trident submarine-launched ballistic missile and nuclear weapons carried on long-range bombers.

There are currently 450 Minuteman III nuclear missiles, each of which can carry three nuclear weapons, although some missiles are scheduled to be moved into reserve.

In summer 2016, the Air Force opened up to proposals for replacements for the Minuteman system and its nuclear cruise missiles. This is one aspect of the US military’s continued modernisation of its increasingly outdated atomic weapons systems, largely designed to threaten Soviet territories in past decades.

“The Minuteman III is 45 years old,” said General David Goldfein, Air Force chief of staff in a statement. “It is time to upgrade.”

Over three years, Boeing (which has worked on Minuteman since the 1950s) will be awarded $349m and Northrop Grumman will be awarded $328m. These funds will allow the companies to continue development and prototyping in the “technology maturation and risk reduction” phase for the Minuteman replacement in a project that could cost up to $85bn, according to the Pentagon’s office of Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation.

The total cost of the modernisation of the US nuclear force – including its bombs, nuclear bombers, missiles and submarines – is expected to cost over $350bn over the next decade, and $1tn  over 30 years.

“We are moving forward with modernisation of the ground-based leg of the nuclear triad,” said Heather Wilson, Secretary of the Air Force. “Our missiles were built in the 1970s. Things just wear out, and it becomes more expensive to maintain them than to replace them.”

The contracts for the new Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent coincide with escalation of military tensions with North Korea. Kim Jong-Un’s government has ramped up the frequency and spectacle of its nuclear tests in recent years, and North Korea’s Academy of Defence Science claims that the “final step” has been taken in creating a “confident and powerful nuclear state that can strike anywhere on Earth”.

A North Korean ICBM test carried out on July 4 2017 was described by Kim as a “gift for the American bastards” on Independence Day.

Lockheed Martin was also competing for a three-year contract and a representative described the company as “disappointed” by the selection.

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