An unarmed Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile launches during an operational test at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. on Aug. 2, 2017.

An unarmed Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile launches during an operational test at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. on Aug. 2, 2017. U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Ian Dudley

Consider a National-Team Approach to the Next ICBM

Boeing’s decision not to bid on the Air Force’s replacement program doesn’t have to be a disaster.

Two weeks ago, the U.S. Air Force released its request for proposals for development of the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent, or GBSD, program, an effort to replace existing ICBMs with new missiles to serve until 2075 or beyond. Last week, Boeing surprised the defense world by announcing it will not bid, leaving only Northrop in the competition. The Air Force now possesses three options:

• Re-draft the RfP to address Boeing’s concerns.

• Sole-source the award to Northrop.

• Rapidly incorporate Northrop and Boeing in a national team approach.

The first of these options offers more risk than reward. Re-opening the debate over the acquisition strategy is likely to delay the program, which is already bereft of any slack in its schedule. As two former Air Force Global Strike Command leaders summarily put it, “Schedule delays will increase GBSD costs, force additional bills in sustaining legacy systems and weaken our operational deterrent capability.” 

Delays and increasing costs will also provide grist for those who would cancel the program entirely. A carefully orchestrated effort to kill the GBSD already exists, evidenced most recently by House-passed legislation that cuts the program by $103 million for no apparent reason. This plan does not seek to kill GBSD outright or even affirmatively argue against the ICBM leg of the triad. Rather, it intends to throw enough sand in the program’s gears so that a Democratic president might kill it in 2021. This appears to be the underlying intention of an amendment to the House bill by Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Oregon, which would require yet another study about the possibility of extending Minuteman III through 2050 in lieu of moving forward with GBSD. 

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Even at the high end of its cost estimate, the entire GBSD program would cost less than Americans spend annually on fast food or beer. The vote on Blumenauer’s amendment failed 164-264, showing that, at least at the moment, strong bipartisan support exists for maintaining the ICBM triad leg through the 21st century by building replacements. 

While the specifics of Boeing’s complaints about the acquisition approach are tough to independently assess, it’s hard to see how any redrafted request for proposals could address the company’s core concern. Northrop’s ownership of Orbital ATK, one of only two companies that produce large solid-rocket motors, creates almost insurmountable problems for competition. While firewalls can work, this one is inherently difficult because there are so few providers. 

Indeed, the overall defense industrial base is so desiccated and consolidated at this point that true competition is harder and harder to come by. While massive prime contractors do contain business advantages that lower program costs, their large size and limited number also mean that “competitive” bids are often anything but. America’s entire naval shipbuilding acquisition approach is “allocated” or “managed” competition—far short of true competition. Given an acquisition system lately focused on price and a narrowed industrial base, the GBSD program always would have always struggled to create a real competition. 

Despite these challenges, GBSD program’s choices thus far have been praiseworthy. From banning insular contracting arrangements to designing a 36-month risk reduction effort and using low-risk, mature technologies, the Government Accountability Office states that the program “aligns with acquisition best practices.” Current Air Force Global Strike Command chief Gen. Timothy Ray agrees: “by this stage, you would be on your second design cycle. We’re past nine, with both contenders, and the insights are incredible.” The program’s done what Pentagon acquisition programs almost never do—invest additional money upfront, increasing immediate costs to save billions later. 

Would sole-sourcing the award even guarantee worse performance? No. As nominee for Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. John Hyten notes, “I know that we have many programs that are well run with a single contractor at this point in the competition.” Indeed, a nuclear command-and-control program—the replacement for Air Force One—was sole-sourced to Boeing. But the Pentagon would have to press Northrop to ensure that the ostensible lack of competition does not engender the perception or occurrence of a higher-than-expected bid or slower-than-expected delivery schedule. Either could jeopardize the program’s overall success.

Still, using a national team approach might better ensure the program’s long-term viability and help to sustain the industrial base. The Air Force used a similar approach to develop its first intercontinental ballistic missiles in the 1950s. All parties involved—the Air Force, Congress, Northrop, and Boeing—would have to accept compromise. 

At day’s end, though, the problems associated with a sole-source or national team approach pale in comparison to continued dallying. By avoiding a long, drawn-out debate about exactly who does what and whether the program can be put on ice until sometime in the future, the Air Force, Congress, and industry stand a much better chance of ensuring that modernization of key element of our strategic deterrent on track, thereby keeping America’s ICBM force reliable, capable, and cost-effective for another century.

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