March 04, 2024

ICYMI: At Hearing, Warren Highlights Significant Cost Overruns and Mismanagement of the Sentinel Program

Warren: “I will be looking to see if they take this review seriously or if it is just another paperwork exercise to justify throwing more money at more expensive nuclear programs.”

Video of Exchange (YouTube)

Washington, D.C. - Last week, at a hearing of the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC), U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) questioned General Anthony J. Cotton, USAF, Commander of United States Strategic Command about significant cost overruns and mismanagement of the Sentinel program. 

Senator Warren highlighted that the Sentinel program is not on track and on a two year delay, with the Air Force’s aggressive schedule leading them to rely on immature technology, the project being nearly 40 percent over budget due to assumptions the Air Force later concluded “weren’t particularly valid,” and the need for independent experts to evaluate the Sentinel program. Senator Warren also expressed concern that Pentagon officials had said they would “make the trades it takes” to keep the Sentinel program funded and called for DoD to conduct a serious review of the program.  

Transcript: Hearing [t]o receive testimony on the United States Strategic Command and United States Space Command in review of the Defense Authorization Request for Fiscal Year 2025 and the future years’ defense program.
U.S. Senate Committee on Armed Services 
February 29, 2024

Senator Elizabeth Warren: Strategic command is responsible for strategic deterrence, including our nuclear weapons. We were already planning to spend $2 trillion to modernize and maintain those weapons over the next 30 years. Now we are learning that the cost of those programs are going to be even higher than we anticipated. 

General Cotton, I know that you are not responsible for managing these programs. But we turn to your command for your best military advice on what these programs will be for our national security. 

General Cotton, do you agree the decisions about how to build or nuclear posture should be based on the most accurate information we have at the time? 

General Anthony J. Cotton, USAF, Commander of United States Strategic Command: Senator, can you rephrase? I don't quite understand. 

Senator Warren: I know, it sounds so easy. The point is, should we base our decisions based on the most accurate information we’ve got when we’re making the decisions? 

General Cotton: Absolutely. 

Senator Warren: Okay, good. Because DOD did not do that for the Sentinel program, which will replace all land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles. The Air Force has already concluded that the basic assumptions for the program's cost estimates "Weren't particularly valid." 

When I requested that DOD contract with a respected group of outside experts in 2021 to determine the technical feasibility of extending the Minuteman III missile program instead of buying expensive new weapons, I was told they didn’t have contract authority to do so. That was not true. They just didn’t want an honest assessment of the real risks of Sentinel. 

And since then, the cost of the program has soared. We initially thought the price for Sentinel would be about $95 billion. Now, the Air Force reports it will be $132 billion -- nearly 40% more. By law, that kind of increase triggers a mandatory review of the program's viability. 

Now, I’m glad that this review is happening, but we need independent experts, people who will ask hard questions. We need to ask about the Sentinel program, taking a look as well. General Cotton, would you oppose an outside review of the Sentinel program if it helps enhance our national security? 

General Cotton: Senator Warren, I agree with the previous assessments that were done with the last three administrations in regards to where we are on the replacement of the Minuteman program. As I said earlier in my opening comments, what I cannot endure as a combatant commander that has to provide COAs to the Commander in Chief, is I cannot endure having a gap or a drop in the reliability of a current platform that we currently have that is part of the Triad. 

Senator Warren: And I appreciate that. What I'm talking about here is I want to make sure that what we are going to be replacing it with has been fully vetted and is the right direction for us to go. Even before this latest cost breach, there were bright blinking warnings that this program was not on track. 

The Air Force's aggressive schedule meant they were relying on immature technology, which the GAO warned at the time created additional risks of cost increases and schedule delays. Now best practices for budgeting these types of complex programs is to develop what is called an integrated master schedule -- analysis that is going to break down the project into steps, resources, and budget needed to complete it -- sort of budgeting 101. Sentinel did not have that. General Cotton, you’ve warned that the complexity of the Sentinel program -- I'm quoting you here -- “will challenge Air Force and industry partners in ways not seen for a generation.” So let me ask -- do you think it is important to have basic program management guard rails in place to help us prevent delays and cost overruns? 

General Cotton: The rest of that statement was “you are absolutely right,” because I've said it numerous times that it is going to be a megaproject that we haven’t seen since the onset of the Minuteman III in placement in the early 1960's. I am a taxpayer as well. I want to ensure that, one, I have a weapons system that can deliver the capabilities that I need to deliver. I also need to make sure that we don't create a larger gap in having assessments that would drive us to now question one leg of the Triad in regards to how I can produce or have forces go to meet the need. 

Senator Warren: And I appreciate that General, but we have to have a plan here that is actually going to work. We can't just keep burning money and say at some point we hope we will be able to deliver this thing. I am very concerned that Pentagon officials are already saying "They will make the trades it takes to keep the Sentinel program funded, analysis be damned." I will be watching closely to see if the DOD takes this review that is required now by law because of the cost overruns. I will be looking to see if they take this review seriously or if it is just another paperwork exercise to justify throwing more money at more expensive nuclear programs. 

Thank you, General.