As new ICBMs’ cost soars, a few lawmakers are trying to rein it in

As new ICBMs’ cost soars, a few lawmakers are trying to rein it in

Lawmakers are failing to provide enough oversight of the Air Force’s program to build the next intercontinental ballistic missile, whose projected cost has swelled past $130 billion, said Rep. John Garamendi.

“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,” the California Democrat said during a press conference Tuesday. 

Garamendi, a longtime critic of the LGM-35A Sentinel ICBM program, has not had much success in his fight for more oversight. Congress is generally united behind Sentinel, with the exception of a few fellow Democrats. And most of the amendments he tried to pass in the 2025 defense policy bill to curb the program were nixed, other than one that would require the Government Accountability Office to audit the Defense Department’s review of the program. 

But Garamendi, along with the other chairs of the Nuclear Weapons and Arms Control Working Group, will hold a hearing July 24 on the cost overruns of the Sentinel program to try to “engage Congress in its constitutional responsibilities.”

The ICBM-replacement program now is expected to cost some $131 billion, 37 percent more than the previous projection and some 60 percent, in real terms, over the service’s original 2015 estimate. The program recently breached Nunn-McCurdy limits, forcing the Pentagon to review the program and report to Congress by July 9. As part of the Nunn-McCurdy process, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has to recertify the program to stop it from being canceled. 

But Austin is all but certain to recertify Sentinel, since the Air Force has already publicly committed to the program despite the massive cost overrun. 

The working group is “doing everything we can” to make sure the Nunn-McCurdy process is honest, Garamendi said. The group will send Austin a letter within the next few days outlining their concerns that the DOD is not completing a thorough assessment of alternatives for the Sentinel program. 

“We’ve done a couple of letters to the secretary, and the hearing…Will we be successful? Well, every day is an effort,” Garamendi said.  

Still, he said his concerns are beyond the department. During the press conference, he pointed to the Capitol to make his point: “It’s us. Are we going to carry out our responsibilities? Thus far, the answer has been not so much.” 

ICBMs have become a controversial leg of the nuclear triad because the silo-based missiles are easier to target than bombers or submarines, and the president would only have minutes to decide if the U.S. should launch them after a reported attack—which critics argue increases the chance of accidental nuclear war. 

“Not only are intercontinental ballistic missiles redundant, but they are prone to a high risk of accidental use. They are less reliable. They do not make us any safer. Their only value is to the defense contractors who line their fat pockets with large cost overruns at the expense of our taxpayers. It has got to stop,” said Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., a co-chair of the nuclear arms working group.

Markey called on the Air Force to declassify the 2014 analysis of alternatives report that found it would be cheaper to pursue Sentinel rather than extend the life of current ICBMs, and for a declassified review of the costs of all of the Pentagon’s nuclear modernization programs. 

“If it’s all made public and declassified, the real risk is to these programs themselves, because they could not survive the scrutiny of the public actually understanding how this money would be spent,” Markey said. 

Air Force leaders say the Sentinel is necessary for national security, no matter the cost, and say extending the life of the current Minuteman III ICBMs is not a viable option. Service leaders have attributed the program’s skyrocketing cost to invalid “assumptions” when the initial cost estimates were made. ICBM-builder Northrop Grumman has argued the main driver of the cost growth was the service changing its requirements for the program.

Whatever the reason, the lawmakers’ struggles are hardly unanticipated. As one Air Force officer wrote in a 2020 Congressional Research Services report, “If Congress chooses to fund this program, potentially one of the biggest challenges would be to ensure the program stays on schedule and on budget.”



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