Artist's conception of the LGM-35A Sentinel ICBM.

Artist's conception of the LGM-35A Sentinel ICBM. Northrop Grumman

New ICBM Delayed at Least a Year, GAO Says

Annual assessment foresees LGM-35A reaching initial operating capability no earlier than mid-2030.

The Air Force’s next intercontinental ballistic missile will arrive at least a year behind schedule, according to the Government Accountability Office’s annual evaluation of Pentagon weapons programs.

“Initial capability” for the LGM-35A Sentinel ICBM is now slated for April to June 2030, the report says—a year later than the May 2029 date given in the Pentagon’s most recent Selected Acquisition Report

“Sentinel is behind schedule due to staffing shortfalls, delays with clearance processing, and classified information technology infrastructure challenges. Additionally, the program is experiencing supply chain disruptions, leading to further schedule delays. The prime contractor is working on multiple supply chain mitigations to address the issue,” GAO said.

The contractor, Northrop Grumman, is discussing the “potential changes” to the schedule with the Pentagon, GAO said.

Air Force leaders hinted at possible delays to the ICBM program earlier this year. Keeping the effort on schedule will be a “challenge,” Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall told Congress at the end of April, because it’s a “very complicated, very large program.”

Indeed, it requires a “total system replacement of the intercontinental ballistic missile system’s 400 missiles, 450 silos, and more than 600 facilities over a 31,900 square-mile landmass,” GAO said.

The program told GAO that the Air Force is “actively working to address current and potential future macroeconomic pressures via an updated acquisition strategy.”

However, the missile’s first flight test is still on track for this year, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. CQ Brown said Wednesday at the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies. 

“We're continuing to work very closely with our industry partner on driving down any type of risk getting to that first flight, but also just over the long term, as well,” Brown said.

The ICBM replacement has also been criticized for its hefty price tag, which could exceed a quarter-trillion dollars.  

It’s almost impossible for the ICBM replacement not to be delayed or go over budget, Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists, previously told Defense One. Beyond LGM-35A, the entire nuclear enterprise is facing delays, he said. 

ICBMs have become a controversial leg of the nuclear triad because the silo-based missiles are more easily targeted than U.S. bombers or submarines, turning large swathes of the Midwest into a “missile sponge.” The president would face a use-them-or-lose-them choice within minutes of a reported attack—which critics say boosts the chance of accidental nuclear war. 

But some defense officials and lawmakers—including the former head of U.S. Strategic Command Adm. Charles Richardson—say ICBMs remain crucial.