U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis (left) visits with Gen. John E. Hyten, the commander of U.S. Strategic Command, during a visit to Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska last week. Credit: DoD/U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Jette Carr

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — The unexpected escalation of North Korea’s atomic weapons program and Russia’s nuclear posturing are providing fresh momentum to U.S. efforts to develop a new intercontinental ballistic missile.

Early doubts about the future of the next-generation ICBM, known as the ground-based strategic deterrent (GBSD), are giving way to a growing confidence that the Pentagon is fully behind the program, military officials said Sept. 18 at the Air Force Association’s Air Space Cyber conference.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis in the past had raised questions about the need to develop a new ICBM to replace the 50-year-old Minuteman, but now firmly supports it. “Secretary Mattis said he did not see a future triad without the ICBM,” asserted Maj. Gen. Anthony Cotton, commander of the 20th Air Force at Global Strike Command. Mattis gave the GBSD a ringing endorsement last week during a visit to Minot Air Force Base, North Dakota, the only U.S. base to host two legs of the nuclear triad — strategic bombers and ICBMs.

There are still obstacles ahead for the projected $80 billion GBSD program. The Pentagon is expected to more clearly articulate the rationale for this capability in a forthcoming Nuclear Posture Review.

The Air Force took a major step forward in August when it selected Boeing and Northrop Grumman to begin work on GBSD. Each received a $349 million award for the so-called “technology maturation and risk reduction” phase of the project. The contractors over the next three years will map out their concepts for how to build, deploy and maintain a fleet of more than 600 missiles.

Global Strike Commander Gen. Robin Rand said “real problems” caused by North Korea’s provocations and concerns about deterring Russia are helping build the case for GBSD.  “Everyone is well aware of the challenges,” he said. “Part of deterrence is credibility. And the triad is about projecting credibility.”

A lot can still go wrong with GBSD, however, experts have cautioned. The Air Force has not designed a new ICBM in decades, and the Pentagon’s track record with big-ticket procurements of complex systems has been spotty.

The GBSD contracts awarded to Northrop Grumman and Boeing are only a “prelude to the real program,” former Air Force procurement chief William LaPlante said Sept. 6 at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“These contracts are only for risk reduction. That’s not real development,” said LaPlante, who is now vice president of Mitre Corp.

“Milestone B is when you get serious. That is the key decision,” he said. It will be years before GBSD reaches Milestone B, when it would begin development and engineering work.

“Up until then you can reverse or stop,” said LaPlante. “And we often do” when the Pentagon realizes the program is either too expensive or technologically immature to move forward.

If and when GBSD makes it to development, “That’s the hard phase,” said LaPlante. “It’s when you’re surprised.” That phase usually takes five to seven years.

Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly two decades as editor of NDIA’s National Defense...