NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — "We are in a crazy world" of proliferating nuclear threats that will persist for generations to come and require the U.S. to invest $80 billion to $100 billion in new ICBMs to deter adversaries, Air Force Gen. Robin Rand said Monday.
"There are bad characters around the world" who "need to know we're ready," Rand, commander of Air Force Global Strike Command, said during a strategic deterrence panel at the Air Force Association's Air, Space & Cyber convention.
New Ground Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD) Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles that will eventually replace the current arsenal of about 400 aging Minuteman III missiles would help "keep the world from spinning completely off its axis," he said.
Air Force Maj. Gen. Anthony Cotton, commander of the 20th Air Force in Global Strike Command, said, "We're ready to do business with the weapons systems on alert right now," but GBSD would bring new deterrent capabilities to the land-based component of the nation's nuclear triad of missiles, bombers, and submarines.
Deterrence is about "projecting credibility," Cotton said. "As soon as you lose that credibility, deterrence goes away."
To maintain credibility, the Air Force must develop "an even more lethal weapon system" in the GBSD, he said.
The deterrent value of the ground-based leg of the nuclear triad was questioned in 2009 when the Obama administration engaged in "a very serious discussion about eliminating the ICBM force," retired Maj. Gen. Roger Burg, a former commander of the 20th Air Force, said in a panel discussion.
However, the Obama administration eventually "decided to retain the ICBM force," said Burg, now president of O'Malley Consulting.
The Minuteman III missiles still provide an effective deterrent but they are not cost effective to maintain, Cotton said. Cost estimates on the GBSD range from $80 billion to $100 billion to give the U.S. a new ground-based leg of the triad through 2075.
"We are putting our money where our mouth is in regards to revitalization and modernization of a very potent weapons system" to make it "an even more lethal weapons system in the future," Cotton said.
Replacing the Minuteman III
The Air Force last month awarded preliminary contracts of less than $359 million each to Northrop Grumman Corp. and Boeing Co. to develop replacements for the Minuteman III missiles.
After an initial 36-month risk reduction phase, a single company will be chosen for the engineering and manufacturing development in 2020, the Air Force said.
The choice of Northrop and Boeing for the initial phase effectively eliminated Lockheed Martin from the competition for the GBSD. It was the company's second loss of a major defense contract in the last two years, following the choice of Northrop to build the new B-21 "Raider" stealth bomber.
"We are moving forward with modernization of the ground-based leg of the nuclear triad," Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson said in August.
"Our missiles were built in the 1970s. Things just wear out, and it becomes more expensive to maintain them than to replace them. We need to cost-effectively modernize," she said.
"As others have stated, the only thing more expensive than deterrence is fighting a war. The Minuteman III is 45 years old. It is time to upgrade," Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein told defense reporters in August.
In the panel discussion Monday, Carol Erikson, vice president for GBSD at Northrop Grumman, said the firm is committed to "providing the ultimate top cover for the nation. We're definitely ready to support GBSD."
She emphasized Northrop's expertise in new systems and technology, while Frank McCall, head of Strategic Deterrence Systems, Space and Missile Systems at Boeing, touted Boeing's track record in building the first version of the Minuteman.
He said Boeing has the "manufacturing know-how" to make the GBSD capable and affordable and "build into it adaptability."
In addition to the GBSD, the Air Force is expected to come to a decision soon on the projected Long Range Standoff Weapon, or LRSO -- a nuclear-capable cruise missile to be launched from aircraft such as the B-52 Stratofortress.
The LRSO program would replace the AGM-86B Air Launched Cruise Missile, and a contract is expected to be announced later this year.
The LRSO program took on urgency last March when Air Force Gen. Paul Selva, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Congress that Russia had deployed a land-based cruise missile in violation of the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty.
Selva said Moscow had violated the "spirit and intent" of the pact -- which bans all land-based cruise missiles with a range between 500 and 5,500 kilometers (310 and 3,410 miles) -- by equipping two battalions with the cruise missile.
At the time, Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said he "would be willing to support" speeding up the fielding of LRSO and the B61-12 nuclear bomb on the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter to counter the Russian threat.