Northrop Grumman Gets $13.3 Billion Air Force Contract to Engineer New ICBMs

An unarmed Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile launches during an operational test in 2019.
An unarmed Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile launches during an operational test at 1:13 a.m. Pacific Time Oct. 2, 2019, at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. The Air Force has awarded Northrop Grumman a $13.3 billion contract to engineer and manufacture its next-generation intercontinental ballistic missile. (U.S. Air Force Photo by Staff Sgt. J.T. Armstrong)

The U.S. Air Force has awarded Northrop Grumman a $13.3 billion contract for the engineering and manufacturing development (EMD) phase of the service's next-generation intercontinental ballistic missiles to replace the aging Minuteman III ICBMs.

The service on Tuesday said the contract for the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent, known as GBSD, aims to replace the 1970s-era ICBMs by the late 2020s. Northrop Grumman was the sole bidder for the program after Boeing Co. dropped out of the running for the EMD contract last year.

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"Modernizing the nuclear strategic triad is a top priority of our military," said Defense Secretary Mark Esper in a service news release. "It's key to our nation's defense. It provides that strategic nuclear deterrent that we depend on day after day -- that we've depended on decade after decade."

Gen. Tim Ray, head of Air Force Global Strike Command, concurred.

"I am fully confident in the evolutionary warfighting effectiveness GBSD will ensure," he said in the release. "The increased accuracy, extended range and improved reliability will provide the United States a broader array of options to address unforeseen contingencies, giving us the edge necessary to compete and win against any adversary."

The service is responsible for two of the three legs of the nuclear triad -- land-launched nuclear missiles and aircraft with nuclear bombs and missiles. The third leg is submarine-launched nuclear missiles.

In 2017, the Air Force awarded two contracts to Northrop and Boeing for preliminary work on the GBSD program to replace its Minuteman III system. Known as the technology maturation and risk reduction (TMRR) phase, the two contracts were not to exceed $359 million each, the service said; Boeing was awarded $349 million and Northrop received $328 million for the 36-month deal.

The EMD phase request for proposal was released in July 2019. While the service was always going to down-select and choose a single company to manufacture the next-generation ICBM, Boeing said the service's acquisition approach favored its competitor and exited the competition that same month.

"After numerous attempts to resolve concerns within the procurement process, Boeing has informed the Air Force that it will not bid Ground Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD) Engineering and Manufacturing Development (EMD) under the current acquisition approach," the company said at the time. That October, the Air Force informed Boeing it would cut off the company's funding to finish out the TMRR phase.

Maj. Gen. Mike Lutton, 20th Air Force commander, said in a recent interview that upgrading to a new ICBM system is an affordable alternative for the U.S., as opposed to executing a service life extension program on the current arsenal.

Last month, the service celebrated 50 years since the first Minuteman III was placed on alert at Minot Air Force Base, North Dakota. The system was expected to last only 10 years, and "maintaining the weapon can be difficult" due to its age, according to AFGSC.

Unlike the laborious challenges with Minuteman, "with [GBSD], there is an opportunity to lower life-cycle costs," Lutton told last month.

Dr. Will Roper, assistant secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics, has touted the opportunity to use innovative ways to build the fledgling stockpile, particularly in the way the program uses digital engineering to allow developers to see how to make a part before it is manufactured.

"Our GBSD team is doing just that by leveraging a modular open system approach to ensure our next-generation ICBM system is adaptable to challenges posed by the pace of technological advancements and new threat environments," Roper said in the release Tuesday.

The approach reduces the program's technical risks, added Brig. Gen. Anthony Genatempo, Air Force Nuclear Weapons Center commander and Air Force program executive officer for strategic systems. "Its acquisition strategy focuses on mature technologies, smart commonality, modular designs, and maintaining the Air Force's ability to leverage competition throughout the weapon system's lifecycle to ensure it will effectively adapt to evolving environments."

Former Defense Secretary William Perry had the following to say about the contract in a Twitter post: "We are spending $13 billion on new nuclear missiles that we do not need and that make us less safe, while at the same time a global pandemic has killed 200,000 Americans. It is 2020, not 1959. Our defense spending should reflect that. #masksnotmissiles"

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at Follow her on Twitter at @Oriana0214.

Related: The Minuteman III, Designed for 10 Years of Use, Celebrates its 50th Anniversary

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