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Air Force Lays Out Post-2020 Modernization Priorities For ICBMs

By | July 10, 2006

      KEYSTONE, Colo.–Having determined that it intends to operate the nation’s Minuteman III nuclear-tipped ICBM fleet beyond 2020, the Air Force Space Command (AFSPC) has laid out the modernization priorities needed to support this plan, senior command officials said here last week.

      The improvements eyed include an upgraded guidance system for greater delivery accuracy as well as enhanced command-and-control and security features to replace aging Cold War- era systems, these officials said. At a later point, there is also the potential for incorporating new solid rocket motors and an advanced re-entry vehicle, they said.

      AFSPC recently completed an analysis of alternatives (AoA) that explored the best options in a land-based strategic nuclear deterrent that would meet DoD-validated requirements post 2020. Based on the study, AFSPC has recommended that the Air Force keep the Minuteman III fleet in service past 2020 by conducting block upgrades to the 1970s-era missiles to improve their capabilities and reduce their operating costs. That option was deemed more affordable than pursuing a new missile design.

      “We intend to sustain Minuteman indefinitely,” Col. Rick Patenaude, chief of AFSPC’s deterrence and strike division. Patenaude made his comments in an interview with Defense Daily, sister publication of Space & Missile Defense Report. “As things come up, we will decide if we want to spend the money to continue sustaining it,” he said.

      But how long that will mean beyond 2020 is an open-ended question, Patenaude and the other AFSPC officials said.

      “We don’t have to make that decision right now,” said Maj. Gen. Mark Shackelford, AFSPC’s director of requirements, during a meeting with reporters during the Air Force Association’s Space Warfare Symposium 2006 here. “We have got some time to work on it.”

      Added Brig. Gen. Thomas Deppe, commander of 20th Air Force, which oversees the ICBM fleet: “I am old enough to remember when the B-52 [bomber aircraft] was supposed to last until 1970, so if we do this right, I am confident that the Minuteman fleet that we have today can last way beyond 2020.”

      Currently the Air Force has a total of 500 LGM-30 Minuteman missiles on alert at Malmstrom Air Force Base (AFB), Mont.; Minot AFB, N.D.; and F.E. Warren AFB, Wyo.

      That number is expected to decrease by 50 to 450 in the near term when AFSPC implements an Office of the Secretary of Defense-issued directive to phase out a missile squadron.

      This mandate was included in the Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), the Pentagon’s far-reaching strategy document that was issued in February.

      The Air Force spends “an awful lot of money maintaining” the Minuteman fleet and would like to reduce those costs as it modernizes the missiles, he said.

      Already the Air Force is carrying out the most extensive series of upgrades in the history of the Minuteman fleet to keep the missiles viable out to 2020.

      “From top to bottom, from the re-entry vehicle, down to the propulsion stages and the guidance set, to the environmental control system and the launch control system, we are modernizing this fleet, so that it lasts, according to the designers and the programmers and the sustainers, to 2020,” said Deppe.

      But to meet the Department of Defense post-2020 requirements, the Minuteman fleet must undergo additional upgrades, the AFSPC officials said.

      First among the improvements identified for the missiles post-2020 is an improved guidance system. While the current Guidance Replacement Program, a Northrop Grumman [NOC]-led initiative, is installing new guidance computers, it was not conceived to address the need for greater delivery accuracy, said Patenaude.

      “The Guidance Replacement Program got at the electronics in the [guidance] can that were failing like the computer, the power support, the power supply,” he said. “It never replaced the gyro-stabilized platform” because there was no requirement for greater accuracy when the program was launched, he said. Nor were there “foreseeable issues with supporting the gyro-stabilized platform” at the time, he noted.

      “Now we have a requirement for greater accuracy and we have a requirement to reduce our costs,” he said.

      Accordingly, said Shackelford, AFSPC seeks to install state-of- the-art inertial guidance systems that will have “fewer moving parts, greater reliability and maintainability” as well as the accuracy improvements.

      “We change approximately half of the guidance wafers on the fleet every year,” he said. “That is a large investment in terms of maintenance activity. So if we can reduce that, we would love to do that.”

      The second area eyed for improvements is the Minuteman command-and-control and security features, according to Patenaude.

      Among improvements in this regard, AFSPC officials have identified changes such as remote surveillance systems that would alleviate the need for as many security personnel on alert.

      The third major area of post 2020 modernization involves new boosters, said Patenaude.

      New boosters might offer greater range, his briefing charts showed.

      The fourth area for improving the Minuteman is an advanced re-entry vehicle that offers precision accuracy, said Patenaude. This aeroshell, his presentation slides showed, could accommodate the Reliable Replacement Warhead, a new nuclear warhead design that the Department of Energy is pursuing.

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