Lewistown News-Argus: Tester concerned about Sentinel missile program delays

by Deb Hill

Senator Jon Tester said delays in the schedule for the Sentinel missile project are concerning from a national defense standpoint and also create difficulties for communities like Lewistown.

In a phone call with the News-Argus Thursday morning, Tester said, as chair of the Senate Appropriation Committee’s Defense Subcommittee, he is frustrated with the delay, which is currently estimated at two years. He further stated he’s pressing both the Air Force and contractor Northrop Grumman for more information.

“The Air Force was just in front of my subcommittee yesterday,” Tester told the News-Argus. “This project is crucial for national security, especially with Putin in China right now meeting with [Chinese leader] Xi Jinping. The deterrence [provided by the land-based missiles] is incredibly important.”

Part of the delay is caused by mandated reviews of the project’s budget. When any defense acquisition project sees cost overruns of 15% or more over baseline estimates, it triggers a detailed review mandated by the Nunn-McCurdy Act. The Sentinel project has seen projected costs rise to 37% above initial estimates, which is deemed a critical Nunn-McCurdy breach.

The Department of Defense is required to report to Congress when breaches occur, and for the Sentinel program that happened in January. Cost estimates have risen from the original $93.5 billion to over $118 billion.

“The Air Force is working to get us final numbers,” Tester said. “The final numbers could come back higher or lower than the estimate.”

Just about six weeks are left to complete the Nunn-McCurdy review of the Sentinel program, scheduled to end in mid-July, but Tester doesn’t think the final cost estimate will lead to a lack of Congressional support.

“It’s been funded in the last two appropriation bills,” Tester said, adding he is more concerned about the delay in implementation.

“We need to know the timelines, and I am pressing them [Department of Defense] on that,” he said. “They are using the Nunn-McCurdy process as the reason, but we need a start date. It’s really important that the people of Montana, including Lewistown, know what’s going on. This could be a really good thing for Lewistown, but the town needs information in order to be prepared. Montanans have a great opportunity for jobs but we need a timeline in order to get a trained workforce ready.”

Undersecretary of Defense Dr. William A. LaPlante told subcommittee members Wednesday that the updating the nuclear triad is a top priority of the Defense Department. Ground based nuclear missiles are one leg of the triad.

“We are committed to working with the Air Force to go through the letter of the law and make sure that, if we do recertify [the Sentinel program], and it’s not guaranteed we will, that we recertify a program that is executable and will replace that leg of the triad,” LaPlante said.

LaPlante also told the Senators the focus, if Sentinel moves forward, will be on reaching out to local communities.

“I’ve already spoken with the Chairman [Tester] on things like vocations that will be needed,” LaPlante said.