SpaceNews : Pentagon greenlights $140 billion ICBM program despite cost overruns

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WASHINGTON – The U.S. Department of Defense has decided to proceed with the $140 billion Sentinel intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) program, despite significant cost growth and schedule setbacks, officials announced July 8.

Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisitions William LaPlante certified that the Sentinel program met statutory criteria to continue, following a comprehensive review triggered by a critical Nunn-McCurdy breach earlier this year. The breach occurred when program costs exceeded baseline projections by more than 25 percent.

The Sentinel program aims to replace the aging Minuteman III ICBMs, which form the land-based leg of the U.S. nuclear triad. Total program acquisition costs are now estimated at $140.9 billion.

“We are fully aware of the costs, but we are also aware of the risks of not modernizing our nuclear forces and not addressing the very real threats we confront,” LaPlante said in a statement. 

The program, led by prime contractor Northrop Grumman, has faced criticism from lawmakers due to its escalating costs. The cost per unit has risen from an initially projected $118 million to $162 million, a 37 percent increase. The projected total program cost over the next decade jumped from $96 billion to approximately $120 billion, before the latest revision to $140 billion.

DoD officials maintain that replacing the Minuteman III ICBMs with the new Sentinel system is crucial for maintaining the land-based portion of the U.S. nuclear triad. The program is now expected to be delayed by several years, with initial operational capability likely pushed to the early 2030s.

The review identified the command and launch segment as a primary driver of cost growth. This segment includes launch facilities, launch centers, and the process of converting from Minuteman III to Sentinel.

Other factors contributing to the cost increase include design changes requested by the Air Force, underestimation of infrastructure work complexity, economic factors such as increased construction costs and labor scarcity, and longer lead times for missile guidance system components.

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