Democrats press Pentagon for ‘unbiased’ review of costly Sentinel nuclear missile program

A group of Democrats led by the congressional Nuclear Weapons and Arms Control Working Group sent a letter to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on Monday calling for a “comprehensive, thorough, and unbiased assessment” of the controversial Sentinel nuclear missile program, which has soared in costs over the years.

In the letter, provided first to The Hill, the lawmakers expressed concerns that the Pentagon’s review of the Sentinel program, which is mandatory after a significant cost overrun in January, was “being prepared with an end-state in mind.”

“Given the imperative of advancing nuclear policies that promote stability and prevent escalation, we demand a thorough review of all alternatives,” they wrote. “At this critical juncture, we must not allow momentum and preconceived notions to cloud our judgment in reviewing whether this program provides for our national security or is wasting U.S. taxpayer dollars.

“The American people have a right to know how their money is being spent and to what end, particularly for our nation’s nuclear policy,” the lawmakers added.

The congressional working group, which is holding a July hearing on Sentinel, is co-chaired by Democrats Sen. Ed Markey (Mass.) and Jeff Merkley (Ore.) and Reps. John Garamendi (Calif.) and Don Beyer (Va.).

The letter was also signed by several other Democrats, including Sens. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), Chris Van Hollen (Md.), and Ron Wyden (Ore.) and Reps. Sara Jacobs (Calif.), Mark Pocan (Wis.), Barbara Lee (Calif.), Jim McGovern (Mass.) and Jerry Nadler (N.Y.).

The Monday letter signals that concerns are growing about the embattled Sentinel nuclear missile program, with more Democrats pressing for an honest review of the initiative and of the alternatives.

Sentinel aims to replace the more than 50-year-old Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) scattered across the rural western U.S. in underground silos. The 400 ICBMs are one part of the nuclear triad, along with bomber planes and submarines.

But the program, which awarded its first contract in 2020 to defense giant Northrop Grumman, the contractor likely to keep developing the program, overran its costs by 37 percent in January, triggering a Nunn-McCurdy breach that requires a Pentagon review.

Sentinel is expected to now cost around $130 billion, far more than the original roughly $60 billion about a decade ago. Much of the increase is tied to a vast real estate project as the Air Force looks to modernize related infrastructure for the new missiles.

In the letter, the lawmakers said the Air Force “has relied on a budget projection that underestimated costs, made poor assumptions, and relied on incomplete data to gain Congressional approval for the program’s authorization.”

“It’s unacceptable that such flawed assumptions were the basis for a project of this magnitude and that these types of errors persist to this day,” they wrote.

Supporters of Sentinel argue that it is critical for the U.S. to maintain its nuclear triad and modernize each leg as competition increases with China and Russia. Skeptics have questioned whether ICBMs provide a necessary deterrence, considering they lack the abilities of fast bomber planes or clandestine submarines.

Modernization, however, remains a key national security strategy under the Biden administration, and Air Force officials have said that Sentinel must be funded.

The Democratic lawmakers on Monday said Sentinel, after the Nunn-McCurdy breach, can only be continued if there are no alternatives, the program’s cost is reasonable and can be constrained further, and if the program is essential to national security and a higher priorirty than other programs that may be cut.

In the letter, however, they pointed to past comments by the Air Force and Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment William LaPlante, vowing that Sentinel will be funded as “concerning signs that past preferences prejudiced the outcome of this new review.”

“There must be an honest evaluation of the necessity of proceeding with this program now and at what cost we are willing to continue,” lawmakers said. “Inevitably, this means making hard decisions about how and where to spend taxpayer dollars. Billions of dollars and at least a decade have been spent justifying the $130 billion Sentinel program. This requires reevaluation.”

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