Congress will hold a hearing about the Sentinel missile’s exploding budget, but is it too little, too late?

By Chloe Shrager | June 14, 2024

The next generation of US land-based intercontinental ballistic missile, initially known as the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent and now dubbed Sentinel, was chosen in large part for its supposed cost-effectiveness. But its price has nearly doubled in size from its original projections of $62.3 billion in 2015 to over $130 billion today. (Credit: Northrop Grumman)

The Pentagon’s new multibillion-dollar intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) program has come under fire as a continual offender of overspending, but there has been little reaction on the issue from Congress. The most recent cost overrun for the Sentinel ICBM (previously known as the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent or GBSD) put the program’s budget an unprecedented 37 percent higher than previous estimates and extended its operational schedule by at least two years. As a result, the Pentagon is critically reviewing the program to determine if it will continue or be canceled.

Critics have called the land-based missile modernization project “wasteful and dangerous.” But much to the dismay of Sentinel’s many naysayers, the costly program is expected to be recertified.

While experts and activists have long called for a thorough reevaluation of the program, most of Congress has been silent on the issue. It is only last month that the chairs of a congressional working group on nuclear arms called for an oversight hearing on the controversial program. The hearing, set for July 24, seeks to “raise the alarm about our unsustainable, reckless nuclear posture,” working group co-chair Don Beyer, a Democrat of Virginia, said of the current US nuclear policy.

The upcoming hearing will be the first—and maybe onlyopportunity for lawmakers to critically reevaluate US spending on modernization of its ICBM force. But it will come after the program is poised to be recertified by the Defense Secretary on July 10. This raises the question of whether Congress truly has any oversight on the US nuclear modernization program, or if the hearing is merely a performance.

Sentinel’s history of budget breaches. The Sentinel program is meant to completely replace the 400 deployed Minuteman III missiles that constitute the land-based leg of the US nuclear triad, producing 400 new ICBMs and refurbishing the 450 launch silos capable of holding them. The program also includes the acquisition of more than 250 additional ICBMs and the modernization of over 600 command and control facilities. Of the 659 total ICBMs that Sentinel will produce, 400 will be actively deployed in silos and 50 will be kept “warm,” leaving 209 extras for testing and other purposes. However, the US Air Force has yet to publicly justify why it needs these 259 warm and extra missiles not included in the current generation of Minuteman III missiles or how they increase national security.

The Sentinel was chosen in large part for its supposed cost-effectiveness, but its price has skyrocketed since initial cost analyses: It nearly doubled in size from its original projections of $62.3 billion back in 2015 to over $130 billion today. That total is almost as much as what is planned to be spent on Medicaid health services for low income families over the next 10 years. A new report from government watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense projects the price tag might reach $315 billion by 2075.

The most recent cost overrun happened when the production cost per unit jumped from $118 million to $162 million, a 37-percent increase that set off alarms in the Pentagon.

The overrun triggered a mandatory investigation of the Sentinel under the Nunn-McCurdy Act, a legal relic of the 1980s enacted to put checks on military spending. According to the law, Congress must be notified of any “significant” cost or schedule increases of more than 15 percent. Breaches over 30 percent are considered “critical” and require a root-cause analysis and recertification of the program by the Defense Secretary to continue.

According to the Air Force, the Sentinel program’s beneficiary, the overruns are a result of unpredictable construction costs. But this budget breach does not account for all of the program’s exploding expenses, which also include the increasing price of plutonium pit production, which the Department of Energy requested $2.9 billion for this year alone, and other overruns associated with the program’s W87-1 warhead. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has called the W87-1 possibly “the most expensive warhead modernization program to date” at an upper-end estimate of $14.8 billion in 2020.

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The Sentinel is part of the overall US nuclear modernization effort, which suffers generally from budget bloat. The United States is slated to spend an estimated $2 trillion to modernize its nuclear arsenal this century, an amount that has already doubled since its original proposal in 2010. Chronic budget overruns from projects like the Sentinel continue to increase the price tag.

It is not completely out of the ordinary to see a critical Nunn-McCurdy breach—there were 106 breaches between 1997 and 2021, 49 critical and 57 significant. This isn’t even the first time this decade that an ICBM modernization program specifically has triggered the Nunn-McCurdy Act: The “Fuze Mod” program—aimed at extending the service life and enhancing the reliability of ICBM warhead fuzes—had a significant breach in 2020. But “a breach at such a scale on an entire leg of our nuclear triad is unheard of,” representative John Garamendi, a Democrat from California and co-chair of the working group on nuclear arms, told the Bulletin in a statement about Sentinel.

Garamendi is one of the few representatives openly critical of the Sentinel program—organizing the July 24 oversight hearing and having previously sponsored legislation to pause the program, extend the service life of the Minuteman III missiles instead, and reduce funding for nuclear weapons projects overall.

“This Nunn-McCurdy breach is a billion-dollar overrun on a weapon whose destructive power has the potential to destroy millions of lives,” Garamendi said. “This breach should be a wake-up call to America: How much money do we really need to spend to build weapons whose only possible use can be global annihilation?”

A dysfunctional review process. The legal review required by the Nunn-McCurdy Act breach has been a completely internal process so far, and the July 24 congressional hearing will be the first—potentially only—opportunity to publicly investigate the program. Based on a simple glance at the calendar, it seems the hearing will be too little too late.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin is slated to make his final call on the fate of the program by around July 10—two weeks before the oversight hearing—and it is widely expected that he will recertify and restructure the program according to specific Nunn-McCurdy Act criteria to keep it going. It is unclear, therefore, what the congressional hearing is meant to accomplish other than bringing attention to the problem after the fact.

Under the Nunn-McCurdy Act, the Air Force must submit a modified Selected Acquisition Report to Congress detailing the root cause of the overruns and projecting an updated cost analysis. This was expected around May 10. (There is no public confirmation of when the report was received but an unclassified version was published on May 24.) The Air Force has attributed the cause of the Sentinel’s critical budget breach to “unforeseen infrastructure costs” of refurbishing the missile silos and launch facilities, said Mackenzie Knight, a researcher on the nuclear information project at the Federation of American Scientists who follows the issue. But there are other reasons for the overruns that the Air Force hasn’t admitted to, Knight added. These include the program’s sole-source contract with defense company Northrop Grumman, which was awarded in 2020 at $13.3 billion.

“When the one company responsible for a program of this size faces their own issues of inflation, supply chain issues, labor issues,” those issues carry over into the program, Knight said. “This was an unprecedented sole-source contract for a program of this size, and I think we’re seeing the ramifications of that.”

According to the researcher, the Sentinel program’s costs might have been intentionally underestimated from the beginning and based on faulty assumptions. And actually, Air Force officials have since admitted to that practice: “Some of the assumptions that were made at the beginning of the program when the initial cost estimates were made were just not particularly valid, and now we have a lot more information that should allow us to stay much closer to the cost estimates that will be developed as part of the Nunn-McCurdy process,” said Kristyn Jones, the Air Force’s assistant secretary for financial management and comptroller.

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Air Force officials continue to defend the necessity of the Sentinel program even as experts identify cheaper and equally-effective alternatives that uphold the current US nuclear doctrine of maintaining 400 deployed ICBMs at all times. One such option includes life-extending the current fleet of Minutemen III missiles. The Air Force originally said that it would be impossible to extend the program to the required timeline of 2075, “which is a date that essentially was plucked out of thin air,” Knight said. But now that the Sentinel is experiencing schedule overruns and it may be necessary to life-extend the Minutemen missiles for another 15 years to bridge the operational gap and keep the Sentinel program alive, it suddenly becomes possible to extend the life of the current ICBM fleet. Additional research has since shown that an extension program with a lifespan before or after 2075 would both be cheaper options than the Sentinel.

“By choosing 2075, it makes Sentinel look like the best option,” Knight said. “At the very least it was a flawed cost assessment because of these arbitrary cost estimates. At worst, the Air Force made those numbers look better to make Sentinel look better in comparison to Minuteman.”

Garamendi also expresses doubts about the US nuclear posture, questioning whether those 400 ICBMs are really needed in the first place. “I am very concerned that rather than being based on level-headed analysis, the 400 number has become a mantra, repeated as a statement of faith rather than thought about critically,” he told me.

Other experts who pressure Congress to take action are echoing similar doubts: “We are embarking on this multibillion-dollar project, and no one is even questioning if these ICBMs would be used,” said Stephen Schwartz, a nuclear historian and former Bulletin editor. “We can’t use them on North Korea or China because they would have to fly over Russia, and Russia would not go for that. So we can’t even use these weapons on the adversaries we are building them for. I honestly don’t know how many people in Congress are aware of that.”

Calling Congress to act. Despite its glaring inefficiencies and incredible price tag, Knight expects the Sentinel program to be recertified and continue. “As with what happens with a lot of nuclear programs, it happens because that’s how the way it’s always been done,” she said.

But for an increasing number of US lawmakers, the ballooning cost of the US nuclear arsenal is becoming too big an issue to continue to ignore. “We can no longer let momentum alone march us down a $150 billion path that makes our country, and the world, fundamentally less safe,” representative Adam Smith, a Democrat of the Washington state, recently wrote in a commentary about the Sentinel program.

The July 24 hearing is a first step in the direction of more public accountability in government spending for nuclear weapons programs. But, unless representatives advocate for a full and candid review of Sentinel, the hearing will merely blow hot air at a decision already made. When announcing the oversight meeting on June 4, Garamendi remembered that “historically, nations have collapsed by overspending on outdated defense strategies, and I fear the United States is repeating these mistakes.”

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