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Pentagon backs Sentinel ICBM program as costs balloon 81% • The Register

Pentagon backs Sentinel ICBM program as costs balloon 81% • The Register

The price tag for the Pentagon’s next-generation nuclear-tipped Sentinel ICBMs has ballooned by 81 percent in less than four years, triggering a Congressionally-mandated justify-or-die review.

The US Dept of Defense carried out that legally required probe into the cost of the program, and on Monday released the results – with under-secretary of defense for acquisition and sustainment William LaPlante saying the Sentinel missile program met established criteria for being allowed to continue after his “comprehensive, unbiased review of the program.” 

In other words, trust us, it’s worth it.

The Sentinel project is the DoD’s attempt to replace its aging fleet of ground-based nuclear-armed Minuteman III missiles (first deployed in 1970) with new hardware. When it passed its Milestone B decision (authorization to enter the engineering and manufacturing phase) in September 2020 the cost was just a fraction of the $141 billion the Pentagon now estimates Sentinel will cost, LaPlante said. 

Because costs had soared by so much in so short a time, Sentinel ran afoul of the Nunn-McCurdy statute that requires LaPlante’s office to justify a weapon program’s existence or immediately cancel it if costs rise over a certain threshold.

According to LaPlante, the Sentinel program can’t be canned because it’s essential to national defense, there aren’t any alternatives available for less money, that the 81 percent increase is actually reasonable, the upgrade has a higher priority than other programs that can be cut to keep Sentinel alive, and program management should be able to keep costs from ballooning much further. 

Nonetheless, “it is important to note that this certification does not indicate business as usual,” LaPlante added. “The program will be restructured to address the root causes of the breach and ensure an appropriate management structure is in place to control costs.”

Sentinel survives … for now

LaPlante’s first move to restructure Sentinel involves rescinding Milestone B approval. The Nunn-McCurdy review determined that most of the cost growth was in Sentinel’s launch facilities and converting them from Minuteman III to Sentinel missiles. Going back to the planning stage means those costs can be cut down. 

“This is basically a scaling back of the size and some of the details of the complexity of the launch facility,” LaPlante said. “Both of those were the changes that are being recommended for the modification, the smaller launch facility with less complexity and the shorter timeline for the transition.”

That said, rolling the Sentinel program back to a prior point will mean further delays: US Air Force senior acquisitions executive Andrew Hunter said during a press conference yesterday it would likely be 18 to 24 months before fresh plans with bonus cost estimates are put together. 

LaPointe said the entirety of the Sentinel program would probably be delayed by “several years” beyond its initial 2030 target date.

This is just the latest twist in the United States’ ongoing missile modernization saga.

The US Government Accountability Office (GAO) expressed concerns late last year that the Pentagon’s nuke overhaul – which include plans for the entire air, land, and sea nuclear triad and include Sentinel – are costing too much, moving too slowly, and lack appropriate oversight. 

The GAO said in October it was, among other concerns, unsure whether nuclear weapon modernization efforts were actually proceeding apace. The accountability office also reported last month that missile upgrades were suffering problems. The Pentagon was mostly ignoring auditors’ concerns, putting projects at risk, the GAO said.

Indeed, the GAO hasn’t yet been able to independently determined that the DoD is implementing its nuclear program modernization recommendations, the audit agency’s director of contracting and national security acquisitions Jon Ludwigson told The Register.

“This issue does span a good number of large or technically complex weapons system acquisition efforts across DoD,” Ludwigson told us in a statement. “At a high level, we are concerned that DoD take steps to address the underlying issues with the acquisition and do so in a manner that provides solid foundations for the cost and schedule estimates that are provided to the warfighters.”

So while mitigating GAO concerns could have prevented some of the cost overruns and new multi-year delays to the Sentinel program, it seems officials are at least aware that all these compounding issues are beginning to look bad.

The Air Force’s Andrew Hunter said the service’s “leaders are acutely aware that we can and must do more to improve program management and oversight of this vital project. We do not take lightly the once in a generation responsibility to modernize the ground leg of the nuclear triad.” 

Whether there’s a situation in which Sentinel could be abandoned, or if it’s become too big to fail, isn’t clear. We’ve reached out to the DoD with questions. ®

Pentagon backs Sentinel ICBM program as costs balloon 81% • The Register

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