On Monday, Department of Defense officials told the Associated Press the estimated cost of replacing the 450 Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) that form the ground-based portion of the US nuclear triad would be $95.8 billion - about $10 billion more than estimates four years ago.
The US Air Force hopes to have the new missiles reach initial operational capability by 2029. The Minuteman IIIs they will replace have been in continuous use since the early 1970s.
Earlier this month, Bloomberg reported that internal Pentagon estimates obtained by the outlet and dated September 21 estimated the GBSD’s cost at $110.6 billion. That document, an unclassified memo from Ellen Lord, the Pentagon’s undersecretary for acquisition and sustainment, included the purchase of 659 missiles: 25 for initial testing and 634 to go in the silos, along with spares and missiles for later testing.
The difference includes the $13.3 billion contract awarded to defense contractor Northrop Grumman on September 8 to design the missiles.
On top of that - literally - is the replacement program for the Minuteman III’s warhead, the W87-1, a 450-kiloton nuclear weapon that once sat in packs of 10 on the massive Peacekeeper ICBM, which the US retired in 2005. While the W87 was adapted to the Minuteman III at that time, some of the missiles still use the W78 warhead, which was purpose-built for the missile. According to a September 23 public version of a February report on the project by the Government Accountability Office, modernizing the W87 could cost as much as $14.8 billion. Each new missile will have just a single warhead on top, as all current US ICBMs do.
The projects are part of a much larger effort to modernize the entire US nuclear arsenal, including replacing more than a dozen ballistic missile submarines and their missiles, which together will cost an estimated $1.2 trillion, according to the Congressional Budget Office. That effort is expected to last until 2046.
Along with its ground-based ICBMs and submarine-launched ballistic missiles, the US also maintains nuclear gravity bombs and nuclear-tipped cruise missiles that can be carried into battle by its B-52 and B-2 strategic bombers. Together, they form a “triad” that ensures the US’ ability to give a devastating response to any potential nuclear attack by another nation. The only other countries with such ability are Russia, India and possibly China.