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Northrop Grumman wins $13 billion contract to replace U.S. ballistic missiles

The Air Force contract is part of a broad-ranging plan, hatched under Obama and accelerated under Trump, to rebuild America’s nuclear infrastructure

A test launch of an unarmed Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., in October 2019. (J.T. Armstrong/AP)

The U.S. Air Force has awarded Falls Church-based defense manufacturer Northrop Grumman a $13.3 billion contract to replace America’s aging stock of intercontinental ballistic missiles, marking a major step forward for an ambitious plan to modernize the nation’s crumbling nuclear missile infrastructure.

While a nonproliferation treaty caps the Defense Department’s stock of nuclear warheads, top defense officials have said updating the missile infrastructure that would be used to deliver those warheads is essential for deterring aggression from countries such as Russia and China.

“Modernizing the nuclear strategic triad is a top priority of our military,” Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper said in a statement. “It’s key to our nation’s defense. It provides that strategic nuclear deterrent that we depend on day after day — that we’ve depended on decade after decade.”

The award sweeps aside an earlier attempt to challenge the terms of the competition by Boeing, which has led the Pentagon’s ballistic missile work since the Eisenhower administration. And it gives Northrop the lead on a long-term program, estimated to be worth $85 billion or more over the next several decades, that includes almost every major defense manufacturer except Boeing.

​The U.S. military operates 400 nuclear intercontinental ballistic missiles out of 450 silos across three Air Force bases: Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota, Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana and F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming. Air Force officers man the silos around-the-clock in underground capsules with equipment that dates to the Cold War, waiting for an order from the commander in chief to launch the nation’s most dangerous weapons if necessary. Because the silos are scattered across farmland in remote areas of multiple states, they ensure that the U.S. nuclear deterrent would survive in the event of an attack and be able to respond.

The contract announced Tuesday calls for Northrop to develop and manufacture missiles that can be operational by 2029.

“Our nation is facing a rapidly evolving threat environment and protecting our citizens with a modern strategic deterrent capability has never been more critical,” said Kathy Warden, Northrop’s chair, chief executive and president.

The award of the contract to Northrop Grumman comes in the middle of a vast, three-decade-long modernization of the U.S. nuclear arsenal that President Barack Obama approved in 2010 in exchange for the Republican-led Senate’s ratification of the New START Treaty with Russia.

In addition to replacing the ICBM fleet, the modernization will see the Pentagon introduce a new submarine and bomber, a long-range standoff cruise missile for the bomber, and new command and control technology.

In 2017, the Congressional Budget Office estimated that the overhaul would cost $1.2 trillion over 30 years, including the operation and maintenance of the existing nuclear arsenal while the new technology is introduced. In 2019, the CBO estimated that the Pentagon would spend $61 billion over the subsequent 10 years on modernization of the ICBM fleet alone.

The Defense Department has regularly underscored that the expenditure on the nuclear modernization is only a small percentage of the total defense budget and the country’s gross domestic product each year, and that it is necessary to keep the country’s nuclear deterrent safe and up to date.

But the cost of the project has led to calls for it to be rolled back, particularly from House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.), who has called the plan unaffordable. Some congressional Democrats have also opposed the cruise missile, saying its introduction will cause instability among nuclear powers.

This is the first time that the United States is trying to simultaneously modernize the nuclear enterprise while also modernizing an aging conventional fleet of aircraft and other equipment, Gen. David Goldfein, then the top officer in the Air Force, said during an appearance at the Brookings Institution in July.

Goldfein said, “There are either going to be some significant trades made, or we’re going to have to find a fund for strategic nuclear deterrence,” or a separate account to bankroll the nuclear modernization outside the Air Force budget. ​

Others say the push to modernize nuclear missiles is not only expensive but could be overtly counterproductive. Congressional Democrats have expressed opposition to developing new cruise missiles, warning that that could spur Russia and other nations to be more aggressive in their weapons programs. Some argue sea- and air-launched nuclear missiles are sufficient.

“Our nation faces major security challenges, including a global pandemic that has killed almost 200,000 Americans, and we shouldn’t spend our limited resources on new nuclear weapons that we don’t need and make us less safe,” said William J. Perry, who served as defense secretary during Bill Clinton’s administration. Perry has also argued that ground-based ballistic missiles are a danger because they cannot be recalled if launched by mistake. Perry has proposed scrapping the ICBM fleet altogether.

The decision to give the contract to Northrop Grumman could permanently tip the scales in a U.S. defense industry in which Boeing has been, and remains, a leading supplier. The contract awarded Tuesday was preceded by a head-to-head competition in which the two companies were separately awarded research and development contracts to build a new ballistic missile.

But Boeing effectively walked away from the table last year, telling top defense officials that it would not submit a bid. Its concerns stemmed from Northrop’s 2017 acquisition of a company called Orbital ATK, which builds the solid rocket motors that propel ballistic missiles. Boeing took its case to the Federal Trade Commission and the Pentagon seeking to force Northrop to team up, but no such agreement materialized.