Lawmakers Want Briefing on Fund That Could Take Sentinel Off the Air Force Books

Members of the Senate Armed Services Committee are eyeing major changes to the U.S. nuclear deterrence enterprise in their version of the 2025 defense policy bill, calling for exploration of a special fund—potentially separate from the Air Force’s budget—to pay for the Sentinel intercontinental ballistic missile program.

Lawmakers also want to establish a new Pentagon overseer for all deterrence matters and information on increasing the size of the deployed Sentinel inventory.  

The committee completed its markup of the 2025 National Defense Authorization bill with more than a dozen significant and specific steps to bolster the strategic deterrent, affecting all aspects of the nuclear triad. The bill’s text has yet to be released, but a summary was made available.

One provision would require a briefing on “the establishment of a National Land-Based Deterrence Fund, including the cost elements of the Sentinel ICBM weapon system.” The Navy already has a National Sea-Based Deterrence Fund separate from its other shipbuilding accounts, meant to finance nuclear modernization from “across DOD’s budget rather than solely from the Navy’s budget,” according to the Congressional Research Service.

Such a fund might move some of the Sentinel program outside the Air Force budget. Taking even some of that burden off the Air Force’s plate could help the service significantly, as it struggles to recapitalize its aging and shrinking aircraft fleet. Cost overruns alone on the Sentinel—mainly due to the massive scope of the civil engineering required to rehabilitate the nation’s ICBM silos—are expected to add up to nearly $50 billion; the equivalent of more than 600 F-35s.

Chief of Staff Gen. David Allvin said last week that the fiscal 2026 budget crunch—driven by Sentinel, budget caps, inflation, and more–is compelling the Air Force to rethink its Next-Generation Air Dominance program, the foundation of its future air superiority capability.

It remains to be seen whether any briefing on a Sentinel-focused fund will take place. The bill must make it through the Senate, then be reconciled with the House version and signed into law by the president.

Possibly connected with the discussion on funding Sentinel, Senate lawmakers also want to mandate a report on how the Air Force and the Army Corps of Engineers will cooperate to “recapitalize the existing Minuteman II ICBM infrastructure.”

The committee also seem interested in increasing the size of the Sentinel fleet. It mandates “no fewer” than 400 “responsive, on-alert, U.S. intercontinental ballistic missiles to be deployed, except for activities related to maintenance, sustainment, and replacement, or activities to ensure safety, security, or reliability.” A deployed force of 400 ICBMs is the Sentinel plan, but the proposed bill would also require “a plan for acquiring and deploying up to 450 Sentinel ICBMs,” an increase of 50 missiles standing alert.

The Sentinel program calls for 400 of the missiles to be based in silos, but production of 659 is planned, to accommodate thrice-annual surety/demonstration tests through 2075.   

Boeing did not ultimately bid on the Sentinel program because it claimed Northrop Grumman—which got the award as sole bidder—had an unfair advantage as the only maker of large solid rocket motors. A provision in the bill would authorize increased funding “to support design and manufacturing of an advanced modular solid rocket motor.”  

Beyond Sentinel, Senators indicated concern for the Defense Department’s entire nuclear enterprise. They want to create a “new senior Pentagon position” that would coordinate and oversee all nuclear deterrence policies and programs, a role now consolidated under the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear, Chemical and Biological Defense programs, who also serves as executive secretary of the Nuclear Weapons Council. Brandi C. Vann is the acting incumbent in the role. Presumably, the SASC sees a higher-level position to perform this function, potentially at the undersecretary level.

The committee also wants a firm plan from the Pentagon on how it plans to deter two peer nuclear powers. Nuclear deterrence has always been calculated against a single opponent—Russia—but the accelerating deployment of nuclear weapons in China’s military requires a new calculus. Lawmakers want “a DOD plan for deterring and defeating simultaneous aggression by two near-peer nuclear competitors, including requirements for nuclear force sizing.”

The panel also directed the Pentagon and Department of Energy (DOE) to provide an assessment “of  the recommendations on the final report of the Congressional Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United States.” No further detail was provided, but last November the commission urged the national nuclear enterprise to update its processes, increase its output of nuclear materials, and broadly recognize and prepare for a world with three major nuclear powers.

Lawmakers also want the Pentagon to review “implementation of the 2022 Nuclear Posture Review, including overall risk management, and progress on meeting requirements to address long-term threats.”

The U.S. has sized its nuclear forces based on the START treaty. But Russia’s exit from nearly all arms control treaties, coupled with China’s increasing nuclear arsenal, throws open the question about how many nuclear weapons are needed to deter both countries and lesser-armed members of the nuclear “club.”

In a move to end debate on whether to pursue a nuclear-armed sea-launched cruise missile, Senators also would move to establish a program office for the weapon. The Navy has said a SLCM would not be provocative and would enhance deterrence by introducing a low-yield nuclear deterrent in the Indo-Pacific. The committee also wants to authorize “modification or development of the B61-13 gravity bomb and a variation of the W80 weapon for the nuclear-armed” SLCM.

Without explanation, the SASC also voted to direct “the restoration of nuclear capabilities across the entire B-52 strategic bomber fleet.” The B-52 fleet is getting a massive upgrade to extend its service into the 2050s. The 76 aircraft are getting new engines, radars, navigation aids and weapons, including the new nuclear-armed Long Range Stand-Off missile. Collectively, the upgrades warrant the redesignation of the bomber from B-52H to B-52J.

Lawmakers proposed an annual review of the Survivable Airborne Operations Center (SAOC) program—which replaces the E-4 National Airborne Operations Center. The committee wants the report to update its “cost, schedule, and technical readiness levels for on-board mission systems.”