LaPlante: ‘Nunn-McCurdy Or Not,’ US Must Have ICBM Leg of Triad

Regardless of what the Defense Department concludes in its Nunn-McCurdy cost breach review of the Sentinel intercontinental ballistic missile program, the U.S. must still have a land-based leg of the nuclear triad, Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment William A. LaPlante told lawmakers May 15.

The fate of the Sentinel, the successor to the Minuteman III, has been up in the air since January, when the Air Force announced the program had suffered “critical” cost and schedule overruns as defined by the Nunn-McCurdy Act. By law, the Secretary of Defense must certify that the program is essential and that no alternatives exist, or it must be terminated.

Regardless, LaPlante said at a hearing of Senate Appropriations defense subcommittee, an ICBM will be required to meet the National Defense Strategy.

“The modernization of our triad is the top priority of the Defense Department,” LaPlante said. The 2022 Nuclear Posture Review “reaffirmed the need for a triad, so Nunn-McCurdy or not, we have a policy of our country having and sustaining a triad.” The other two legs of the triad are bombers and the Columbia-class ballistic missile submarine, which has also experienced delays.

Some members of Congress—notably Rep. John Garamendi (D-Calif.)—have offered legislation or proposals to skip the Sentinel program and rely on a dyad of bombers and subs for strategic deterrence, though several members voiced concern in the hearing with delays to the Columbia too.

LaPlante said he is “committed to working with the Air Force and across the DOD team to go through the letter of the law and make sure that if we do recertify [Sentinel]—and it’s not a guarantee—that we certify a program that is executable and will meet replacing that leg of the triad.”

According to law, the Pentagon has 120 days from the submission of its fiscal 2025 defense budget request to decided whether it will certify the program. LaPlante said the review process has “about a month and a half” left. He previously told another Senate panel the work would be concluded by “July 10 or so.”

The Pentagon must work with an independent review team to find the reasons for the 37 percent cost overrun and two-year delay in Sentinel. In a previous hearing, LaPlante declined to discuss any preliminary findings of the review but said he thought the program suffered from a lack of competition for the contract, poor communication between Northrop and its subcontractors, and a lack of appreciation for the infrastructure cost.

Kendall, who is recused from taking any programmatic action on Sentinel or B-21 because of a previous financial relationship with Northrop, has also noted that the Air Force hasn’t undertaken a project of this magnitude in nearly 50 years and lost much of its expertise in cost estimating for it.

Estimated costs have ballooned from $93.5 billion to $118 billion, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) has warned that the final bill “may be worse than that.”

But LaPlante was adamant that the ICBM requirement can’t simply be dismissed.

“Apart from the Nunn-McCurdy, we need a triad,” he said.  

Senior Air Force officials—including Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall and acquisition executive Andrew Hunter—have said program estimators did not appreciate the scope of work needed on the civil engineering portion of the Sentinel program, which requires massive overhaul of the control capsules, silos, trunking, and other infrastructure associated with the new ICBM. Large amounts of material that were expected to be re-used from the Minuteman III infrastructure—such as concrete structures and cabling—are too worn out or decayed to be repurposed for Sentinel, they said. Most of those infrastructure elements date back to before the Minuteman III was deployed in the 1970s.

However, USAF leaders said, the LGM-35A missile itself is on schedule and meeting requirements. Northrop Grumman is the prime contractor for the Sentinel enterprise.  

Responding to questions from Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.) about keeping the Sentinel on track, LaPlante said “a lot of the focus, assuming we go forward, is going to be really on the localities,” and ensuring that there is sufficient workforce and infrastructure across the three bases and five states where the U.S.’s ICBM silos are located.

Hunter, also testifying, told the committee there is tight coordination between operators and ICBM modernization director Brig. Gen. Colin J. Connor in ensuring the resulting system meets operator needs.

“I work very closely with Gen. Connor, who leads that task force,” Hunter said. “[I] meet with him on a very regular basis, as we go through the Nunn-McCurdy process. But of course we continue to execute that program while we’re going through the Nunn-McCurdy process. So that’s a key partnership.”

Hunter said the B-21, also built by Northrop Grumman, is “the best model for integrating our operators and our requirers, and that is the model we are looking to execute with Sentinel.” He said the Air Force has not yet “reached quite that B-21-level of integration yet, but we are well on our way. We have staffed up in the program office with operators from Global Strike (Command), both operators and maintainers and we are starting to see the benefits of that, especially as we go through some of the design choices that we have to make, to get to where we want to be with the Nunn-McCurdy process.”