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Airmen from the 90th Missile Maintenance Squadron prepare a reentry system for removal from a launch facility, Feb. 2, 2018, in the F. E. Warren Air Force Base missile complex. Air Force photo by A1C Braydon Williams.

Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff USAF Gen. Paul Selva said Thursday the Air Force’s intercontinental ballistic missiles may need a fourth refurbishment program to extend their viability before the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent becomes available in the late 2020s.

“The Minuteman III was put in the ground in 1973 with a plan to do two life extensions,” Selva said at a Strategic Deterrent Coalition conference outside Washington, D.C. “We are now on the third and may have to do a fourth before we can get its replacement in the ground.”

GBSD, in development at Boeing and Northrop Grumman, is expected to begin entering service in fiscal 2029. Col. Luke Cropsey, head of the ICBM systems directorate at Hill AFB, Utah, told Air Force Magazine at the conference there are currently no plans on the table for another service-life extension program.

When the Air Force looked at the possibility of a SLEP instead of replacing the nuclear missiles altogether, then-Air Force Global Strike Command chief Gen. Robin Rand told Congress in July 2016 such a plan would cost $160 billion.

The service did not immediately respond Thursday to questions on the potential cost of another refurbishment effort, but Selva's spokesman Maj. Will Powell emphasized in an email that, "his comments were more notional or theoretical, … stating it may be necessary based on how long the third life-extension program is supposed to last, compared to when the replacement is supposed to become operational."

In a 2017 report, defense budget expert Todd Harrison suggested more could be done to sustain the current ICBM inventory through the 2060s, particularly if GBSD is delayed.

“The missiles could go through another propellant replacement program, as they did in the 2000s, to re-core the missiles and extend their lives for another 30 years,” Harrison, an analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said. “The missile guidance system would also need to be replaced around the same time, and the silos and ground infrastructure that support the missiles would need modernization. Even with these life-extension programs, the dwindling number of missile bodies that remain in the inventory would still pose a challenge.”

Four hundred ICBMs sit ready in silos in Montana, North Dakota, and Wyoming in accordance with New START agreement limits. The $22 billion GBSD program plans to buy more than 600 new missiles from either Boeing or Northrop, and will choose one contractor’s design to produce in 2020.