Replacing weapon systems
Next generation land-based missiles & bombers being planned
The U.S. Air Force is making plans for two next generation weapon systems for the nation – the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD) weapon system to replace the Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile system and the B-21 bomber program to replace B-1 and B-2 bombers and eventually the B-52 bomber.
Minot Air Force Base is the only dual wing, nuclear-capable base with Minuteman III ICBMs in the Minot missile field and B-52 bombers.
This past August the Air Force selected Northrop Grumman and Boeing as the two contractors for the GBSD for the next three years. They were awarded contracts amounting to between about $328 million and $350 million-plus over the three years.
Northrop Grumman’s GBSD team members visited Minot again in February. The team also visited Minot prior to the award of the contract.
“GBSD is the next-generation ICBM system. It’s an all new command-and-control, communications, all new missile,” Carol Erikson, vice president of the GBSD program at Northrop Grumman, told the Minot Daily News during the team’s February visit.
Erikson said the original Minuteman systems were designed for 10 years of life. Sixty years later they’re still operating and being maintained.
“Because of the importance of this to the nation, both Boeing and Northrop are bringing their own investments to supplement that and made sure we’re maturing technologies and really preparing for the future of the ICBM system,” Erikson said.
The current Air Force timeline for the contract is three years. In 2020 the current contracts will culminate in a preliminary design review that year. At that time one of the two contractors will be selected to continue on through the detailed design and the initial production, Erikson said.
The goal is to begin production on the new missile in the late 2020s, with deployment of the new system in the 2030s at all three current ICBM sites – Minot AFB, F.E. Warren AFB, Wyo., and Malmstrom AFB, Mont.
Next generation bomber
The Air Force will also be replacing bombers with the B-21, formerly known as the Long Range Strike Bomber, or LRS-B for short.
The B-21 is the first all-new American heavy bomber in decades, and it is to fly alongside and could eventually replace the B-52, which has been a mainstay of every major American conflict since the 1950s.
Then Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James announced at the 2016 Air Warfare Symposium, the LRS-B was formally designated the B-21 Raider, signifying the aircraft as the 21st century’s first bomber.
Ann Stefanek, chief of Media Operations for current Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson, said, “Strategic Guidance for the 21st Century Defense reaffirmed the need for a new, survivable bomber capable of projecting power and deterring adversaries in anti-access and area denial environments.”
“The B-21 is critical to national defense and is a top priority for the Air Force. Through extensive mission analysis and affordability indicators, the USAF has determined 100 B-21 aircraft is the minimum number needed to provide critical operational flexibility, both conventional and nuclear, across a wide range of military operations to meet strategic guidance in fulfillment of national objectives,” Stefanek said in information provided to the Minot Daily News.
She said the Air Force has completed the preliminary design review and is on track to deliver this new capability as planned in the mid-2020s.
“Northrop Grumman Corporation was awarded the contract for the B-21 Bomber Program. While a total cost estimate has not been released, the average procurement unit cost per aircraft is required to be equal to or less than $550 million per aircraft in 2010 dollars when procuring 100 B-21 aircraft,” Stefanek added.
The Air Force announced in February that it plans to first retire the B-2 bomber and then the B-1B bomber in the 2030s. Both bombers have high maintenance costs.
The B-52 would remain through the 2050s, according to Air Force plans.
The B-52 is the least expensive bomber to fly at $68,186 per flying hour and also has higher mission capable rates than the B-1 and B-2, according to military.com.