(Updates with further detail on the newly-created Pentagon position in fifth paragraph.)
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One senator’s blockade of military promotions is impeding oversight of a multi-billion dollar project to replace and overhaul the aging US intercontinental ballistic missile arsenal at a time when China is building up its own nuclear arsenal and Russia has threatened to use its own in Ukraine.
Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.) has blocked military promotions for more than six months, insisting the Defense Department under President Joe Biden end a policy that lets personnel take leave and travel for abortion care or other reproductive health matters if services are unavailable in the states where they are stationed. One of the affected positions is a new post intended to oversee the modernization of the country’s missiles.
His blockade has already stalled more than 300 US military promotions and could extend to as many as 650 promotions by year’s end if it continues, drawing warnings of damage to the nation’s military readiness by three civilian military leaders.
Task Force Leader
The current defense authorization act (Public Law 117-263) created an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile Site Activation Task Force at the Air Force Global Strike Command whose charge includes the nuclear missile wings and nuclear-capable bombers. Under law, the newly-established task force must be run by a general officer.
The Pentagon created a two-star billet — a Major General — and the choice would be Brig. Gen. Colin Connor to run the ICBM task force and receive a promotion as a two-star general, according to a Senate aide familiar with the project who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss information that hasn’t been made public. Even if an existing two-star general is appointed to the position, the Senate would still have to confirm it because it’s a change in a high-level post, the aide said.
Connor is the deputy director for nuclear and homeland defense operations responsible for advising the defense secretary and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff on nuclear, space, and homeland and missile defense operations.
As the head of the ICBM task force, Connor would oversee day-to-day details of one of the Defense Department’s largest construction projects: replacing the aging Minuteman III ICBMs, built in the 1960s, with the new Sentinel ICBM weapon system built by Northrop Grumman Corp., according the the Senate aide.
The now-$96 billion Sentinel program is a key part of the US drive to modernize its air, land and sea “nuclear triad” in the face of China’s rapidly expanding arsenal, Russia’s suspension of participation in the New Start nuclear treaty and North Korea’s nuclear development.
The project’s development phase is falling behind schedule by at least a year, according to the Government Accountability Office. The lag is “due to staffing shortfalls, delays with clearance processing, and classified information technology infrastructure challenges,” the GAO said in its annual assessment of major weapons programs.
The Senate Armed Services Committee outlined the need for oversight of the project in its version of the 2024 defense authorization measure. The Senate and House still have to negotiate the final version.
“Despite reaching Milestone B (Engineering and Manufacturing Development) in 2020, the Air Force has yet to produce a reliable master schedule for the Sentinel Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) program,” the committee wrote in the bill report. “The program contractor is expecting substantial schedule delays and cost growth. This schedule and cost uncertainty has ripple effects on the transition from the Minuteman III (MMIII) to the Sentinel ICBM.”
Hundreds of Silos
The transition from the Minuteman III fleet, estimated to last almost 10 years, “will be a lengthy and complicated process involving, among other things, real estate purchases, construction, deconstruction, removal and installation of equipment, and nuclear certification,” the panel added. The construction phase alone is estimated at $8.7 billion, the Pentagon said in its latest Selected Acquisition Report.
The project would span five states and will involve placing the new Sentinel ICBMs in 400 silos and multiple ground launch centers across three missile wings: F.E. Warren Air Force Base, Wyoming; Malmstrom Air Force Base, Montana; and Minot Air Force Base, North Dakota. It would occur year round with thousands of construction workers laboring in summer and during the harsh northern winters, according to the Senate aide.
Pentagon officials had no immediate response to a request for comment.