Designing a New Strategic Missile Will Pose Serious Problems for the United States

Alexandre Lemoine

New details have emerged about the U.S. design of a strategic missile capable of carrying a nuclear warhead. One could even say that the future of the entire U.S. nuclear arsenal is in question. Why has this happened and what problems will the Pentagon now face?

The strategic weapons modernization program promised earlier by the U.S. authorities is beginning to take shape. The U.S. Air Force has released information on a new intercontinental missile, to be called the LGM-35A Sentinel. This program is of critical importance to the United States.

The state of American strategic weaponry is far from perfect. This includes the obsolete Minuteman missiles currently in service and the inability to produce new nuclear warheads other than by recycling components and materials from the old ones. Not to mention a glaring loss of some of the technology needed to build nuclear armies, without knowing how to recover it, the obsolete and worn-out B-52 strategic bombers and strategic submarines.

In May 2022, it will be exactly one year since the failed test of the Minuteman intercontinental missile, which failed to leave the launch silo. The United States announced its launch for early March 2022, but then cancelled the launch “to avoid creating tensions in relations with Russia in light of the current crisis in Ukraine.” A strange argument. In general, one makes a show of force during such conflicts instead of hiding it. In the end, it is not known whether the American missiles will take off on command or not. Most of them will certainly take off and hit their target, but the exact number is unknown.

Where the state of US nuclear forces is satisfactory is with submarine missiles (Trident-II) and the reasonable timeframe of the B-21 Raider bomber design to replace the current ones. The rest of the nuclear triad raises questions.

Such a situation is unacceptable for a global hegemon. This is why the new intercontinental missile is a priority project in the modernization of the American strategic arsenal.

This project was originally called Ground Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD). It began in 2016 when the U.S. Air Force issued a “request for proposals.” Developers of the future missile were to submit their proposals to the Air Force based on this document.

A year later, the Boeing and Northrop Grumman companies signed contracts on the development of a new missile for $349 million and $329 million respectively. This was supposed to be just the beginning. The usual American practice of allowing them to compete among producers without having different systems in service for the same purpose is that competitors receive money to develop a weapon at the same time by designing competing projects.

In 2020, having learned about the project’s development, the US Air Force signed a contract with Northrop to design a new missile. Its designator and name were unveiled two years later. It is already known that the first warheads of the Sentinel will be W87-0s of 300 kt of TNT equivalent, and from 2030 – W87-1s of 475 tons.

What exactly is known about this new missile? For the moment, only that it will be solid-fuelled and will carry a warhead with individually guided warheads. Apparently, the missile will carry a wide range of decoys and other means to penetrate the air defense.

Will the Americans succeed in designing their new weapon? More likely yes than no. The United States is one of the leaders in the ballistic field, having taken less than a decade to develop its new Dark Eagle medium-range missile. The same should happen with Sentinel.

But delays are possible. Last year’s Government Accountability Office (GAO) report on the nuclear triad claimed that several technologies critical to the design of the new missile did not exist.

The tests scheduled for 2023 will mark a key milestone in the development of this new weapon. If these tests were indeed to take place next year and were successful, then it would have to be said that everything is going according to plan for the Americans and that Sentinel would arrive in service from 2029.

But it is not the missile that is the main problem for the United States. It’s the warheads. That is where the Achilles’ heel lies. Even the newest missile mentions warheads developed in the 1980s. It is true that these will be new devices with updated components and purified fissile materials. Except that these materials will be extracted from old recycled warheads. And not all the components of the new warheads will be made “new”.

For now, the Americans still have many unanswered questions about the future of their nuclear arsenal. Will they be able to re-establish their skills in producing new warheads “from scratch”? Will they be able to create a new strategic submarine? Will the intercontinental missile be completed in time? Will the old missiles remain operational until they are replaced? The next few years will be decisive for the Americans.