The Pentagon has hired Boeing and Northrop Grumman to develop a replacement for the US Air Force’s arsenal of ageing Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and cruise missiles, amid nuclear tensions with North Korea.
“The Minuteman III is 45 years old. It is time to upgrade,” Air Force Chief of Staff General David Goldfein said in a statement on Monday, three days after the deal for the new Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD) was inked.
Boeing and Northrop Grumman were awarded $349 million and $328 million respectively to continue the project over the course of the three-year contract.
The Air Force has estimated that the project would cost US taxpayers at least $62 billion. However, the Pentagon’s office of Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation (CAPE) says the costs would surpass $85 billion.
Lockheed Martin also competed with Northrop and Boeing for the contract, which was necessary for conducting the three-year technology maturation and risk reduction (TMRR) phase of the project.
A Lockheed representative said the company was “disappointed” about the selection and looked “forward to a debrief” with USAF officials.
Boeing’s Strategic Deterrence Systems Director, Frank McCall, hailed the contract, saying Boeing has been providing tech support for Minuteman missile since their first launch in 1961.
Capable of carrying three nuclear warheads, the Minuteman III has a range of around 13,000 kilometers (8,100 miles) and is the US military’s only land-based ICBM in service.
Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson said the contract was an important step in “modernization of the ground-based leg of the nuclear triad.”
Besides missiles, the US nuclear triad features a relatively large number of ageing nuclear bombers and submarines in need of modernization.
The Pentagon says it needs $350 billion to upgrade the whole triad along with America’s some 7,000 nuclear warheads. Some reports put the cost at around $1 trillion.
Although the USAF had asked weapons manufacturers to send in their proposals for a new ICBM last summer, the contract has coincided with the ongoing standoff between the US and North Korea over Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs.
The row has seen US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jung-un trade threats of an apocalyptic nuclear war.