USAF, Pentagon Take Steps to Make Sure Sentinel Hits Its Operational Service Date

The Air Force is accelerating some activities in its Sentinel intercontinental ballistic missile program in order to make sure it meets its “no fail” initial operational capability date of September 2030, Pentagon acquisition and sustainment chief William LaPlante said last week.

“It wasn’t that we have to fix an IOC problem,” LaPlante said during a press conference during AFA’s Air, Space & Cyber conference Sept. 12. “It was [schedule] pressure. … We knew we had a sporty schedule to meet IOC.”

LaPlante directed the creation of an integrated master schedule to take account of development of the Sentinel missile, the construction of 450 launch silos, the command-and-control network to tie them together, and other elements critical to achieving the aggressive plan to have a minimal land-based nuclear deterrent ready to go in seven years.

“Everyone should look at what we’ve learned now” and how programs “can be smarter about doing [things that] potentially will save time later,” he said.

Concerns about delays to the LGM-35 Sentinel surfaced earlier this year after the release of a Government Accountability Office report that projected the program as being a year behind schedule, though with IOC still expected between April and June 2030, before the September 2030 deadline required by U.S. Strategic Command.

“Sentinel is behind schedule due to staffing shortfalls, delays with clearance processing, and classified information technology infrastructure challenges,” the GAO report said. “Additionally, the program is experiencing supply chain disruptions, leading to further schedule delays.”

Specifically, LaPlante said Sept. 12 there are long-lead items in the Sentinel program now expected to take two years to procure, whereas when the program was sketched out before the COVID-19 pandemic, the expectation was for six months.

“So I gave them authority to purchase them now,” LaPlante said. He has also urged the prototyping of Sentinel launch control centers, “now, earlier, so we can learn the lessons rather than wait until this later point,” he added.

Still other parts of the program are being addressed as well, LaPlante said, to ensure they’re ready when needed.

“Every program manager should be doing exactly this. This is what’s called active program management … that’s what we did,” LaPlante said.

There’s been no slip in the planned IOC date “because we’re trying to finish the integrated master schedule. And as we’ve been saying, the IOC is tight, and there’s no margin right now,” he acknowledged, while saying the Pentagon will learn more more about the likelihood of achieving IOC as “pull to the left” plans are implemented.

Northrop Grumman, the prime contractor for Sentinel, has been building facsimiles of Minuteman III silos and systems to smooth and accelerate the process of building or renovating them, Maj. Gen John P. Newberry, program executive officer for strategic systems, told reporters at a separate press conference.

“Currently, we have 450 launch facilities today in Minuteman, and the intent is to refurbish … all of them and place a Sentinel inside,” he said.

Newberry acknowledge the effort has been likened in scope and timeline to the construction of the interstate highway system, but said Northrop and its subcontractors have a good plan to accomplish the task.

“We’re also in construction right now, by the way, in terms of test infrastructure at Vandenberg [Air Force Base, Calif.], converting two, soon to be three, launch facilities,” Newberry said, which will help Northrop with the conversion process and lead to “early identification of issues.”

He also said LaPlante will consider opportunities to start construction earlier at F.E. Warren Air Force Base, Wyo., the planned first operational site for Sentinel.

“And so we’re going to start with two launch facilities earlier than planned, and also launch centers, and do that at F.E. Warren,” Newberry said.

Starting earlier will also help the Air Force deal with the “uniqueness” of every missile base that will get the Sentinel, such as their geography and soil, he said.

Newberry acknowledged the civil engineering effort to build the silos is “a huge challenge. You think about weather, you think about roads. … I’m not trying to downplay that. This will be a sizable construction effort, but it’s getting to design and then [we] begin construction.”

Maj. Gen John Allen, head of the Air Force installations and mission support center, also said a new, streamlined process is being developed for the design and construction of the silos.

The Nuclear Weapons Center and Northrop will partner directly with the Army Corps of Engineers “to deliver this construction,” Allen said, a partnership that amounts to “essentially, a construction task force,” Allen said.

“It is considerably different than the 30 years that I’ve been watching construction in the Air Force. It is a big, big deal,” Allen said. “And I think it is going to get us that agility we need to do … a missile silo a week to get to 450.”