Sentinel and Raider: Where these two legs of the nuclear triad stand today

Artist’s rendering of a US Air Force Sentinel in flight. (Credit: US Air Force)

Modernization of America’s strategic deterrence capability continues apace for the two arms of the nuclear triad—land-launched intercontinental ballistic missiles and strategic bombers. Air Force Maj. Gen. Jason Armagost is responsible for strategic planning and requirements for both: the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent System (GBSD), now known as Sentinel, which will replace the Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile; and the B-21 Raider, which will join the B-2 and B-52 for long-range bomber strikes.

In this Q&A with Armagost, Director of Strategic Plans, Programs and Requirements, Headquarters Air Force Global Strike Command, Barksdale AFB, La., we discuss recent developments in the Sentinel program, how strategic deterrence can work in addition to tactical architectures such as JADC2 , and the importance of “nuclear security.”

Breaking Defense: With the Sentinel award, what major improvements should the DoD expect to see in its strategic deterrence capability?

Maj. Gen. Jason Armagost, director of strategic plans, programs and requirements, U.S. Air Force Global Strike Command, Barksdale Air Force Base, Louisiana.

Maj. Gen. Jason Armagost, director of strategic plans, programs and requirements, U.S. Air Force Global Strike Command, Barksdale Air Force Base, Louisiana.

Armagost: Sentinel will be highly resilient and flexible. This is not only for our own security, but also to reassure our partners and allies around the world. This is an evolutionary opportunity, and deliberate decisions have been made about how to make it effective with the infrastructure we have and can upgrade the capability to remain flexible with open mission systems and digital architecture to evolve with the changing threat environment.

The key part for an ICBM is obviously to maintain high-speed alertness and dispersal. So it’s both a continuity and an evolution of opportunity [and] will respond to the president’s instructions in a new way.

Defense gap: What are the challenges of keeping the existing Minuteman III system running on Sentinel?

Armagost: The Minuteman III was created in the 60s with an original life of 10 years. By the time we finish deploying Sentinel, it will have been in service for over 60 years. It was never designed to be maintained the way we had to maintain it.

As we’ve learned those lessons, we’ve also learned how to design what we think Sentinel needs going into the future to make it viable in terms of today’s provisioning for decades. Because we fully understand the challenges, we also understand the transition.

That’s not to say that we haven’t been surprised by a part that suddenly went out of date, or a material that failed in an unexpected way. But with the help of our team of experts, we can catch it quickly, mitigate it, and then find solutions to make sure the transition plan remains healthy.

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An illustration of the LGM-35A Sentinel launcher is shown. The replacement for the 1970s-era missile modernizes the land-based portion of the nuclear triad and ends more than 50 years of Minuteman service. (US Air Force illustration).

Defense breach: You are also responsible for B-52 requirements. The bomber’s service life is being extended as part of the B-52 Commercial Engine Replacement Program (CERP). Was it impossible for the Minuteman III to essentially do the equivalent of a missile upgrade like you did for the B-52?

Armagost: In the case of the rocket, it’s more than a rebuild. This is a systemic approach to weaponry. You may find a part from the starting factory or another important component that is no longer produced. The company that built it no longer exists. It’s not cost-effective for the Air Force to go out and try to find a company to manufacture the item, and it’s not cost-effective for the company.

Not many companies are interested in manufacturing boutique products with old manufacturing techniques or materials that no longer exist. So the business case for maintaining the Minuteman III really doesn’t exist anymore. That’s not to say we don’t find ways, again, to mitigate and plan for system health. But it’s not something we can do forever, and it’s certainly not a business model that anyone could develop.

The Defense Gap: GBSD was conceived long before we started talking about Great Power competition with China and Russia. How has your opinion of GBSD possibly changed in that regard and because of the turn to the Pacific?

Armagost: Adm. Charles Richard [commander of US Strategic Command] has been very open about what China is doing with its ICBM deposits. It’s not so much that our thinking has changed, but it’s energized a discussion that’s been behind the scenes in many ways — in academia, in the global strike, in STRATCOM — and it’s brought them more into the public eye. So I wouldn’t say it changed our thinking, but it brought more attention and clear thinking from others who may not have been involved in the past. It was good.

What I will say about the triad and specifically the ICBM leg in this case is that it is a stabilization and risk reduction function for our country, partners and allies. The National Defense Strategy clearly shows what we are doing with our nuclear strategy. The ICBM, currently the Minuteman III but the Sentinel in the future, is that stabilizing force so that we can insure against a breakthrough with new adversaries.

Defensive breach: JADC2 and All Domain operations are tactical concepts of action that are specifically related to improving the kill chain and OODA cycle. Is there a connection between such tactical and strategic deterrence?

Armagost: Absolutely there is. I remember that Gen.David Goldfein [former Air Force chief of staff] it has been said before that without NC3 there is no JADC2 [Nuclear Command, Control, and Communications, which is also part of Armagost’s portfolio]and there is no NC3 without JADC2 going into the future.

Command and control is and will remain a military principle regardless of the technology used and the capabilities we have. To have this reliable and viable force in the future, we must be able to manage and control it.

Inside JADC2 is the ability to bridge conventional full-spectrum capabilities through nuclear capabilities. The president’s ability to make decisions on a range of options is actually enhanced by this command and control architecture if we get it right. So they are absolutely interconnected.

[Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall] tells the story of how everything is connected. For the JADC2 question, how the tactical connects to the strategic is becoming increasingly important because of the speed of technology, the way technology is being used by our adversaries, and the speed of the environment.

When we’re talking about a system, whether it’s a B-21 or a Sentinel, it’s important to understand how they interface with other capabilities and how they’re managed and controlled in an integrated manner.

Disrupting Defenses: GBSD is being developed with a modular and open approach typically associated with tactical systems such as cyber security enhancements related to evolving threats. What is modularity for strategic systems?

Armagost: I hear Northrop Grumman commonly say that Sentinel was born digital. Because of this, it helps us think clearly about how to confront the challenges for the digital system early in development so that nuclear security is built into the program.

Breaching Defense: You coined a new word: nuclear security.

Armagost: It is a safe and reliable corporate approach to nuclear capability. It is very well thought out, coordinated and transparent for supervision. The ability to be safe, secure and reliable from inventory to weapon system back to inventory is a huge effort across many different agencies, senior leaders and within the force. It’s an enterprise management approach that again provides safe, secure, reliable, predictable capabilities for the on-call president.

Breaking Defense: What’s the Nearest Roadmap for Sentinel?

Armagost: You’re familiar with some of the acquisition gates that we have to go through, and in the near term, what’s going to be interesting is the Critical Design Review [scheduled] for the fourth quarter of fiscal year 2023. The first flight is currently scheduled for no later than the third quarter of FY24.

The next important milestone in this acquisition journey is Milestone C, which is a manufacturing decision. This is scheduled for the third quarter of FY26.

Breaching the defense: How confident are you in reaching these milestones and goals?

Armagost: In terms of our portfolio and Global Strike Command, we have excellent relationships with the Air Force who are doing the procurement and with the companies that are doing the contracts — whether it’s for the Sentinel, the B-21, the Long Range Stand Off Weapon or the B-52 CERP. .

This transparency and close relationship allows us to adapt and adapt to what is happening from a supply chain perspective, a planning perspective or a financial perspective, be it inflation or other cost drivers. Supply chain is on many people’s minds now. We keep a close eye on this and the close relationships we maintain with contractors allow us to adapt to anything that arises in this environment. Not much surprises us.

Breaching Defense: On another topic, what’s new in the B-21 program and its future phases?

Armagost: Obviously, the B-21 is a bit further along than the Sentinel. The interesting thing is that these programs learn well from each other, especially in the digital environment. The lessons learned from one we build and feed into the other in a variety of ways—especially in digital engineering, manufacturing, and software, where we learn a lot and allow the programs to improve as a result. Between the B-21 and GBSD, they are on cost, on schedule, and the baseline of the acquisition program is met.

In March, Secretary Kendall said Air Force One had six aircraft at Plant 42. In terms of organization, training and equipment for our MAJCOM here, during the global strike, we are doing military construction at Ellsworth Air Force Base, which is where the first operational aircraft will go in the mid-2020s.

It’s starting to get real. In other words, we have some good plans for how we’re going to equip and staff the test rig, and then the operational rig, to make sure the transition happens as smoothly, efficiently, and quickly as possible. Sentinel and Raider: Where these two legs of the nuclear triad stand today

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