Boeing Fears End Of Its Work On New Air Force ICBM As Lockheed Wins Reentry Vehicle Deal

Boeing has publicly questioned the Air Force's contracting processes and a formal protest could lead to delays in the development of the new ICBMs.

Mk 21 reentry vehicles are loaded onto the payload bus for an LGM-118A Peacekeeper missile.
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Lockheed Martin has won a new contract to mature the technology and conduct risk reduction work on the Mk 21A reentry vehicle, which will carry a W87-1 nuclear warhead and sit atop the U.S. Air Force's future intercontinental ballistic missile, or ICBM. The missile is under development now under the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent program, or GBSD. This comes amid turmoil in the GBSD effort, with Boeing recently announcing that the Air Force effectively canceled its contract related to that missile, making Northrop Grumman the de facto winner of the competition.

The Air Force awarded the Mk 21A contract on Oct. 23, 2019, according to a press release from Lockheed Martin. The deal is worth approximately $108 million over the next three years, but includes a provision for a one-year option after that, valued at another $30 million. The United States originally developed the Mk 21, armed with the W87 warhead, for the LGM-118A Peacekeeper ICBM, but began using them on the LGM-30G Minuteman III after the Peacekeeper's retirement in 2005. The W87-1 that GBSD ICBMs will use is a product improved version of the older warhead that is safer and more reliable thanks to the use of insensitive explosives, but most of the exact specifics of the updates are classified.

"We will continue to demonstrate, through this TMRR [technology maturation and risk reduction], cutting-edge engineering to defeat rogue nation threats," John Snyder, Lockheed Martin's Vice President of Advanced Strategic Programs said in a statement. "The Mk21A TMRR contract is a key element of Lockheed Martin's strategy to remain the Air Force's trusted partner for ICBM Reentry Systems and modernization of the deterrent triad," the company's press release added.

The specific mention of "rogue nation threats," typically a reference to the ballistic missile arsenals of Iran and North Korea, as well as the nuclear weapons the latter country possesses, is curious. GBSD is meant to be a replacement for the approximately 500 LGM-30Gs that the Air Force continues fields as part of the U.S. military's strategic nuclear capabilities, which are meant to deter any potential opponent from launching a major attack on the United States. The specific doctrine behind the ICBM force is almost exclusively focused on deterring near-peer nuclear states, such as Russia and China, as well.

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Official Air Force graphics showing the distribution of ICBM fields between missile squadrons under the control of, left to right, the 341st Missile Wing in Montana, the 90th Missile Wing in Wyoming and Nebraska, and the 91st Missile Wing in North Dakota.

In addition, the U.S. government describes the W87-1 as a "life extension" effort for those warheads rather than a program to develop a controversial low-yield version. The United States is developing a low yield warhead for the Trident D5 submarine-launched ballistic missile, which proponents argue would be more useful for retaliating against smaller-scale nuclear strikes, such as those from a rogue nation. Critics warn that this could increase the likelihood of a nuclear exchange. You can read more about this ongoing debate in-depth in this past War Zone story.

Whatever the case, the revised Mk 21A reentry vehicle will be an essential important component of the future GBSD and, as Lockheed Martin itself noted, allows the company to remain involved in the Air Force's future ICBM program. The Air Force eliminated Lockheed Martin from the main GBSD competition in 2017, choosing teams that Boeing and Northrop Grumman to continue to the TMRR phase of that program. 

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Mk 21 reentry vehicles on a payload bus for the LGM-118A Peacekeeper missile on display at the National Museum of the US Air Force.

Details about the GBSD's exact capabilities and features are also largely classified. Past statements from the Air Force, Boeing, and Northrop Grumman have spoken broadly about how the new missile will be more capable and reliable, as well as being less vulnerable, especially to ballistic missile defense systems and cyberattacks. You can read more about the future ICBM's likely improvements over the Minuteman III in this past War Zone piece.

As of 2017, the Air Force had hoped to begin fielding the GBSDs in 2028, but there are concerns that there may be potential protests regarding the service's contracting processes from Boeing that could potentially delay the program. In July 2019, the Chicago-headquartered company said it would not compete against Northrop Grumman for the Engineering and Manufacturing Development (EMD) phase contract, which could be worth up to $85 billion.

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An infographic for Boeing's GBSD proposal.

Boeing's reason for dropping out centered on complaints that Northrop Grumman had gained an unfair advantage when it bought Orbital ATK in 2018. Orbital ATK, now Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems, builds solid-fuel rocket motors, meaning that the company will be able to provide this component for its GBSD proposal in-house, according to Defense News

Boeing never announced who its rocket motor supplier would be, but did go on to pressure the Air Force, via members of Congress, to pick it and Northrop Grumman to work together in the EMD phase. In September 2019, Boeing disclosed that Northrop Grumman had said it would not support this joint proposal.

On Oct. 21, 2019, Defense News reported that Boeing had further revealed that the Air Force had declined to give the company any additional funds for GBSD work under its existing TMRR contract. The company had already informed the Air Force's GBSD program office, which resides at Hill Air Force Base in Utah, that it would run out of money on Oct. 18. 

The Air Force told Defense News that it had not formally canceled Boeing's contract, but, by every indication, the firm is getting closer to being formally dropped from the GBSD program. The question then becomes whether it will file a formal protest with the Government Accountability Office (GAO), which could, in turn, delay Northrop Grumman from getting the EMD contract or beginning that work.

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Air Force personnel work on a Minuteman III ICBM in its silo.

There have also been debates over the years about whether or not the United States should even continue to invest in ICBMs, at all. The GBSD program, together with associated modernization efforts, including the development of the Mk 21A and the W87-1, will cost more than $100 billion in total, according to present estimates. This is all to maintain a leg of America's nuclear triad that is commonly known as the "nuclear sponge" because its sole purpose is to force potential opponents to expend significant numbers of their own warheads if they want to try to destroy them during a nuclear exchange.

The War Zone has explored the many fallacies behind this doctrine in the past. For the moment, however, U.S. nuclear weapons policy calls for retaining the ICBM force, but there is a larger and increasingly intense debate going on in Congress about the future of nuclear modernization efforts, in general, which is set to cost $325 billion overall between 2019 and 2026.

It remains to be seen how Boeing might respond if its involvement in the GBSD program does indeed come to an end and whether it will decide to lodge a formal protest that could cause delays in the Air Force's schedule for developing and fielding these new missiles. Those delays could also push major decisions farther into the future, where they could be impacted by tightening budgets and changing political winds in Washington, D.C. 

Contact the author: joe@thedrive.com