The Air Force will soon ask industry for help in planning how to modernize the ground-based leg of the nuclear triad, eying a big-ticket acquisition effort to either maintain the Minuteman III missile or replace it with a new ICBM that could be hidden in a custom-built underground subway system.
Next month, the Air Force Nuclear Weapons Center plans to award multiple study contracts -- each worth as much as $3 million -- to expand on several ways of extending the operational life of the ground-based ICBM fleet from 2025 to 2075, according to a solicitation posted in January on Federal Business Opportunities.
The center's intelligence, program development and integration directorate will evaluate the concept papers produced by the winning bidders as part of an eventual material development decision -- a key juncture in the acquisition process -- on whether to proceed with a new-start acquisition program, states the Jan. 7 broad agency announcement. Compelling industry proposals will be incorporated into a "ground-based strategic deterrent analysis of alternatives" that was launched last fall, according to the service notice.
"The Minuteman III force is sustainable through 2030 and potentially beyond with additional modernization investment," Gen. Robert Kehler, commander of U.S. Strategic Command, said in a March 5 posture statement prepared for the House Armed Services Committee. "The ongoing Ground Based Strategic Deterrent Analysis of Alternatives is studying the full range of concepts to sustain this triad leg beyond 2030."
Meanwhile, according to multiple press reports in recent months, President Obama is contemplating dramatic reductions to the nation's nuclear arsenal that are backed by the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Since late 2011, the Air Force has been refining potential approaches to closing gaps identified during a ground-based strategic deterrence capabilities-based assessment. Those shortfalls will require some form of remediation, the Joint Staff said in an initial capabilities document -- a potential first step in making the case for a new weapons program.
After soliciting industry ideas on approaches to improve a payload delivery vehicle, warhead integration, basing, nuclear command, control and communications, the Air Force Nuclear Weapons Center last year outlined five potential alternatives to explore in an analysis of alternatives. These options, according to the January notice, include the continued use of the current Minuteman III baseline missile until 2075, with no attempt to close identified gaps; modest modernization approach that incorporates incremental changes to the current Minuteman III baseline to close the gaps; "new fixed" missiles; "new mobile" ICBMs; and a "new tunnel" option.
Of these approaches, the most bold -- and potentially most expensive -- would be the "new tunnel" concept. It would require a vast underground subway-like network of pathways to shuttle new missiles around to multiple launch portals, any of which of could be used to fire the missile. "The tunnel concept mode operates similar to a subway system but with only a single transporter/launcher and missile dedicated to a given tunnel," states the notice. "The tunnel is long enough to improve survivability but leaving enough room to permit adequate 'rattle space' in the event of an enemy attack."
Unmanned cars, either on rails or in "trackless" mode, would move along the tunnels and, in a doomsday scenario, use any one of the launch portals that would be built at "regular" intervals to allow the transporter to raised and fire the missile.
The "new fixed" concept calls for a new "super-hardened" silo capable of withstanding "ground shock levels."
The mobile concept would involve a new ICBM on a "transporter erector launcher" that is capable of off-road deployment -- one that could "leave government land to increase survivability." This system should be able to launch up to two Mk12A or Mk21 reentry vehicles, which house thermonuclear warheads.
"Guidance needs to account for the deployed mode to ensure adequate accuracy is achieved while maintaining prompt responsive capabilities," states the solicitation. -- Jason Sherman