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Over-budget Sentinel ICBM program triggers review, faces cancellation

By Ryan Aston - | Feb 20, 2024

Image supplied, U.S. Air Force

This rendering depicts a missile envisioned as part of the LGM-35A Sentinel program, now being developed at Hill Air Force Base and other installations. The Sentinel ground-based intercontinental ballistic missile program eventually will replace the Minuteman III ICBM system.

In 2020, the U.S. Air Force announced a $13.3 billion contract with Northrop Grumman aimed at modernizing the ground-based intercontinental ballistic missile program, a leg of the military’s nuclear triad.

Less than four years later, that program is over budget and in danger of outright cancellation.

The Sentinel Systems Directorate — operating out of Hill Air Force Base — is currently overseeing the production and rollout of the LGM-35A Sentinel ICBM, which is slated to replace the aging LGM-30 Minuteman III.

However, as reported by Bloomberg’s Anthony Capaccio in January, the latest estimates indicate that the Sentinel program will cost at least 37% more than the projected $96 billion total. As a result, the project will undergo a formal review.

“The Air Force notified Congress that the Sentinel program has exceeded its initial cost projections, which has resulted in a critical Nunn-McCurdy breach,” an Air Force spokesperson told the Standard-Examiner via email.

The Nunn-McCurdy Act requires the Department of Defense to report to Congress whenever a defense program experiences cost overruns exceeding certain thresholds. When the cost increases 25% or more over the current baseline estimate or more than 50% over the original baseline estimate, it’s considered a “critical” breach.

“The Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) will conduct a review of the Sentinel program to decide whether to terminate or restructure the program,” added the spokesperson. “Work under the current contract will continue until OSD completes its review of the Sentinel program. Maintaining a strong nuclear deterrent is critical to safeguarding our nation and protecting our allies from a nuclear attack.”

In a June 2023 report, the U.S. Government Accountability Office noted that the Sentinel program was behind schedule due to “staffing shortfalls, delays with clearance processing, and classified information technology infrastructure challenges.”

Additionally, the report noted that the Sentinel program was affected by “macro-economic pressures related to material shortages, long lead times for basic commodities and staffing issues.” Nevertheless, the Sentinel program has achieved notable milestones over the past year, according to Air Force officials.

In March 2023, a Stage 1 rocket motor static test at Northrop Grumman’s test facility in Promontory was successfully conducted. And on Jan. 11, a second static fire test of the solid rocket motor design was successfully completed.

Hill AFB’s Sentinel Systems Directorate reportedly has grown to a combined government and contractor workforce of more than 1,400, while Northrop Grumman’s Sentinel workforce now encompasses more than 3,300 professionals.

An estimated 10,000 people from across the country are expected to participate in the design, manufacturing, construction and eventual deployment of the Sentinel ICBM system over the next decade and a half.

The Sentinel program essentially serves as a total system replacement of the current ICBM’s 400 missiles, 450 silos and 600-plus facilities. The Minuteman III system has been in service since the 1970s.

Sentinel’s future is of particular interest locally. For example, redevelopment plans in Roy outlined in October 2023 cited a need for more higher-end housing options amid 5,000 new STEM jobs being generated at Northrop Grumman’s Roy Innovation Center, which supports the ICBM program.


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