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Inefficient Spending or Fraud? Pentagon's Sentinel ICBM Program in the Cross Hairs

© Photo : US Air Force LGM-35 Sentinel Intercontinental Ballistic Missile
 LGM-35 Sentinel Intercontinental Ballistic Missile - Sputnik International, 1920, 09.06.2024
The Pentagon's LGM-35A Sentinel intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) program has prompted scrutiny from US lawmakers over excessive costs and lack of alternatives.
US legislators are pressing the Air Force to explain cost overruns in the program to replace the Minuteman nuclear-armed ballistic missile.
Congressmen want answers about the program to replace 400 land-based Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles deployed in the US with future Sentinel ICBMs, designed by the Northrop Grumman corporation.
"We want Congress to do its job, but the evidence is clear: it has not in the past and does not appear now to be ready to do its job to hold the Pentagon responsible and to ask the tough questions," Congressman John Garamendi, co-chair of the Nuclear Weapons and Arms Control Working Group, told the press earlier this week.
The Sentinel program was projected in 2015 to cost $62.3 billion, including $48.5 billion for the missiles, $6.9 billion for command and control systems and $6.9 billion to renovate the launch control centers and missiles silos.
In 2020, when the contract was awarded to Northrop Grumman, the project's price tag rose to $96 billion. To date, it has ballooned to $131 billion or 37 percent more than the previous estimate.
The project also saw delays caused by supply chain and workforce issues at the manufacturing company, Breaking Defense reported.
In accordance with the Nunn-McCurdy Act of 1982, if the cost of a weapon project rises by 25 percent or more over the baseline estimate that constitutes a "critical" breach — meaning that the Pentagon has to review the program.
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The Department of Defense (DoD) is expected to report to Congress on the matter by July 9. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin may have to recertify the program to prevent it from being cancelled.
According to Defense One, there is little if any doubt that Austin will recertify the Sentinel regardless of cost overruns. However, Congressman Garamendi has signaled that he and other US legislators will subject the project to further scrutiny during a hearing on July 24.
The congressional nuclear weapons group is likely to focus not only on the skyrocketing prices of the ICBMs, but also on concerns that the Pentagon has not made a proper assessment of alternatives for the Sentinel program.
US Senator Ed Markey urged the DoD to declassify the 2014 report which concluded that it would be cheaper to build new ICBMS rather than extend the life of existing ones.
He also called on the Pentagon to show a declassified review of the costs of all its nuclear modernization programs. "Defense contractors… line their fat pockets with large cost overruns at the expense of our taxpayers," Markey said.
Both the US Air Force and Northrop Grumman argue that the Sentinel is crucial for US national security, with the defense contractor pinning the blame for the soaring price tag on the US military changing its requirements for the program.
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Northrop Grumman is infamous for its over-budget projects, including the B-2 bomber that holds the record of world's most expensive-ever aircraft with a price of over $2.1 billion per plane. There are concerns that the cost of the B-2 successor, Northrop's B-21, may also go through the roof.
Lockheed Martin's F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter program is similarly notorious for mounting costs and delays, resulting in a price tag of more than $2 trillion over several decades, according to the US Government Accountability Office (GAO).
It is not the first time that the Congress has raised the red flag over the "Big Five" defense contractors inflating weapon prices.
In May 2023, CBS News published the results of a six-month investigation that showed that US defense firms overcharged the Pentagon for almost everything from radar, missiles, and helicopters down to the very nuts and bolts holding them together.
Earlier this year, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders lambasted the RTX corporation for having increased prices for its Stinger missiles "sevenfold" since 1991. He said the DoD shares responsibility for the suspicious waste.
"The Defense Department has been plagued by waste, fraud, and financial mismanagement for decades," Sanders wrote in his February op-ed for The Atlantic, adding that the department "remains the only federal agency that cannot pass an independent audit."
Speaking to foreign press on June 5, Russian President Vladimir Putin drew attention to the fact that big military budgets do not necessarily translate into successful weapon systems.
The question is whether this money is spent efficiently, the Russian president stressed. Putin noted that the Pentagon appears to be mired in corruption, money theft and fraud. "Huge resources are wasted to maintain [the US] status as an empire," he said.
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