New GBSD Will Fly in 2023; No Margin Left for Minuteman

The first example of the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent missile will fly by the end of calendar year 2023 from Vandenberg Space Force Base, Calif., program officials revealed, while emphasizing that there’s no further margin to extend the Minuteman III system without risking the credibility of the intercontinental ballistic missile force.

“We’re … already in critical design review for the subsystems, and we’re months away from first flight,” Air Force GBSD program manager Col. Jason Bartolomei said in an AFA Doolittle Leadership Center virtual forum June 14. The GBSD is being developed by Northrop Grumman.

By the end of calendar 2023, Bartolomei said, “we’ll be at Vandenberg, and we’ll be flying the first test flights of the new weapon system.” The missile is already flying in a “modeling and simulation environment,” he said.

The GBSD is expected to achieve initial operational capability in 2029 and full operational capability with 400 missiles seven years later in 2036, Bartolomei said. GBSDs will be deployed to missile silos an average of once a week for nine years, officials said.

While the deployment schedule is challenging, Bartolomei said, he is confident it will happen because of the exhaustive modeling and simulation done on the system to find precisely the right combination of cost, capability, and performance.

During the technology maturation and risk reduction phase, which lasted from 2016 to 2020, contractors created “six billion different configurations” of the missile, showing the “cost versus capability of their design for every requirement;” a “staggering” statistic, Bartolomei said. “You can’t do that unless you’re operating in” a digital environment, he said.

The first review of the all-up system was a six-hour session “in the model,” he added. “Both of our technical teams … were able to follow Northrop Grumman’s design architecture,” he said.

Zero Margin Left

Global Strike Command chief Gen. Timothy M. Ray asserted that time is up to press on with ICBM modernization.

“There’s no margin left,” he said. “We’re just going to run out of time” addressing risks to the ICBM leg of the nuclear triad from disappearing sources for parts, “the complexity of threats,” and the overall “decay” of the 60-year-old Minuteman III, which was originally intended to serve for 10 years.

“All those things add up,” he said.

Analyses of alternatives showed conclusively seven years ago that the cost to extend the life of the Minuteman III far outweighed the cost and benefits in effectiveness, maintainability, and capability from going forward with a new system, he said. That 2015 decision is still borne out by the data, and “now we need to keep our foot on the gas,” Ray said.  

The GBSD will most likely be a “70-year system,” said Maj. Gen. Anthony W. Genatempo, director of the Air Force Nuclear Weapons Center and program executive officer for strategic systems.

“Minuteman III was a 10-year weapon system that was asked to last 60 years,” he said. “We are building GBSD to be a 70-year weapon system that we can maintain and increase its capability to stay relevant over 70 years.” The difference is that Minuteman’s several updates—the last of which was in 2010—were all retroactive and required significant reverse engineering, he said. The GBSD, rather, has been designed to be easily and quickly updateable to respond to new technology and threat changes, he said.

Genatempo said the things that keep him up at night regarding the health of the Minuteman are things such as heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems and other 60-year-old infrastructure that go with Minuteman that have never been replaced—and the failure of which is largely unpredictable and would take a missile offline for an unknown amount of time as it is fixed.

“That’s why the decision was made” to go ahead with GBSD, he said. It was a decision to “stop trying to keep solving that [kind of] problem and replace this with a system that we can work on that is more reliable, that is safer, and is easier to maintain.” The GBSD system and the Long-Range Stand-Off missile, which will replace the Air-Launched Cruise Missile, “are most certainly designed that way from the get-go,” Genatempo said.

He added that the GBSD model—and that for Minuteman, going forward—is to engage predictive maintenance technologies that no longer wait for things to break and then fix them, but instead anticipate when things will break and correct the issues beforehand.

“Right now, I just do not see the data” that life-extending Minuteman “is a cost-effective option for us,” he said. “I think we have the data to back up that story that it is more cost effective to go down the GBSD route, let alone that GBSD will meet the future requirements” of U.S. Strategic Command, while Minuteman will not.

“From strictly a business case, I think the data is there,” he added. “The case has been made.” Moreover, the cost of extending Minuteman “does nothing but go up as we discover more things” breaking “as time goes by.”

Genatempo also said the GBSD is important for the Airmen “who have to be around that incredibly dangerous weapon system.” While he insisted that Minuteman is safe and reliable, “a lot of the maintenance practices incorporated into the GBSD make it a more safe and reliable system” to work on.

The GBSD is an incredibly complex system, according to Northrop Grumman’s vice president and general manager of strategic deterrent systems, Greg Manuel.

“If you slice and dice GBSD,” he said, it’s the equivalent of “a dozen ACAT 1,” or major development programs. Given that the Air force has 50 such programs, GBSD accounts for a significant share of USAF’s acquisition effort, he said. He also noted that GBSD’s timeline makes it “not a once-in-a-generation program, … but a once every other generation” program.

Not a Trivial Task

Col. Erik Quigley, director of the Minuteman III systems directorate, likened bringing on GBSD while keeping Minuteman credible and deployed to “giving your dog a bath while walking him.” It’s “not a trivial task.” He, too, said Minuteman is suffering from grave structural problems stemming from the fact that “the missile itself is 51 years old,” but the launch capsules and other support facilities are “58 years old.”

“When Gen. Genatempo said he’s worried about HVAC, he’s not joking,” Quigley said.

The launch support building, for example, has “brine chiller lines,” which cool the launch facility. They are “severely corroded; [at] all 400-plus sites,” he said. “But guess what? We don’t attack that problem when we go do programmed depot maintenance out in the field. We just wait for them to break. And when they break, a missile site goes off alert, which is a huge problem.”

In the future, “We’re getting away from ‘hey, let’s hit a site every eight years—let’s go more to condition-based or predictive-based model, using data analytics and digital sustainment to help inform us about what maintenance actions we can take at these sites that will help us get better mission capability.’”

The command has identified the “top drivers of maintenance actions” at the Minuteman sites, and “we really need to double down” on these mitigation efforts “if we’re going to sustain this system for 18 more years,” Quigley said.

Problem areas include “the environmental control system filters, shock isolator air compressors, … the blast doors, the B-plug, the motor generators that are causing MICAPs (mission impaired capability-awaiting parts) in the field, blast valves, things like that. Based on maintenance data that we’re trending, we know how many non-mission capable and partial-mission capable hours that these problems are causing us.”

Quigley said he couldn’t share photos to show “how much corrosion we have … on things like launch and closure doors, and the actual blast doors to the capsules and the B-plug.” The corrosion “prevents us from being able to close the blast doors and lock [them] appropriately. And you can only scrape away the rust and take away layers so many times before you’re putting the crews at risk for potential hardness concerns … [resulting from] an EMP blast and potential radiation.”

Quigley said he’s asked frequently why USAF doesn’t just service-life-extend the Minuteman, rather than build the new GBSD. Given all the changes to make GBSD more capable, easier to update, safer to operate, and longer-lived than Minuteman, he said, “the SLEP program is GBSD. That’s our strategic message.” It will cost $30 billion to extend Minuteman, he noted.

“It’s that big of a bill … Every year we wait, it gets more expensive, … and we are not going down that path.”