STRATCOM Chief Calls for More In-House Nuclear Missile Engineers

An unarmed Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile launches during a February 2016 operational test held at Vandenberg AFB, Calf. Air Force photo by SrA. Kyla Gifford.

US Strategic Command boss Gen. John Hyten this week suggested the Air Force can do more to draw nuclear engineering expertise from its Reserve component to avoid an overreliance on private industry.

“We basically said, ‘We don’t need engineers in that program anymore in the military, we’ll just hire it out to contractors,’” Hyten said of intercontinental ballistic missiles at a July 30 Senate Armed Services Committee hearing. “Two things happened with that: No. 1, you lose the expertise inside the military, and No. 2, you end up with the fox guarding the henhouse, and I’m very concerned about that.”

He indicated that the military’s lack of organic engineering expertise spurred certain decisions about how to structure the Air Force’s effort to build a new ICBM, dubbed the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent.

“I’m concerned about the way we had to put that program in place,” Hyten said.

Drawing on Guardsmen and Reservists’ knowledge can help stem that brain drain and balance the number of military and contractor personnel the Pentagon uses, he indicated.

Hyten added that he’s disappointed Boeing, the Air Force’s longtime source for intercontinental ballistic missiles, decided to drop its bid to build the new Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent. He said he hasn’t discussed the issue with Air Force or Pentagon acquisition leaders, but promised to consider whether the next-generation ICBM program could still unfold properly if Northrop Grumman is left as the sole contractor. The Air Force planned to choose between the two companies next year.

“I always get concerned when competition disappears from America,” Hyten said. “Anytime we’re in a competitive environment, that puts pressure on schedule, pressure on cost, and we have a higher likelihood of getting delivery of the capability.”

Still, he noted, “we have many programs that are well run with a single contractor at this point in the competition.”

Boeing objects to what it sees as an unfairly written solicitation for the GBSD program’s final development stage. The company also believes Northrop has an unfair advantage because it acquired Orbital ATK, which produces solid rocket motors used on ICBMs.