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This article was Originally Published on Jun 25, 2004 in Volume: 3  Issue: 2

ICBM Transformation

Missile force commanders modernize legacy systems while studying global delivery of new conventional warhead designs.

By Scott R. Gourley

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Although it may seem incongruous to some observers, a key element of success for America’s 21st century military is the modernization of the Inter Continental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) force. More than a decade after the end of the Cold War confrontation with the Soviet Union, that force is in its own state of transformation, performing its vital global deterrence functions while simultaneously deactivating, modernizing and possibly replacing elements of the ICBM fleet.

Several aspects of that ongoing transformation were highlighted during the recent Air Force Space Command “Guardian Challenge 2004” competition, held at Vandenberg Air Force Base, CA, this spring. Tracing its roots back nearly four decades, Guardian Challenge is an annual service event that pits the best of America’s Air Force space forces in a wide variety of competitive scenarios.

In addition to these competitions, the 2004 event featured a series of panel presentations by current and retired Air Force commanders, such as retired Air Force Major General Thomas H. Neary, who, as commander of the 20th Air Force, had responsibility for the nation’s ICBM force prior to his retirement in 2000.

In a preface to his presentation, titled “The Future of ICBM Forces,” Neary established a transformational foundation of milestones beginning in the early 1990s. Key events included the fall of the Berlin Wall, the 1992 merging of Strategic Air Command and Tactical Air Command into Air Combat Command, and the 1992 creation of U.S. Strategic Command (USSTRATCOM).

More recent transformational events included the last Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), the 2001 Nuclear Posture Review and the 2002 merger of U.S. Space Command with USSTRATCOM, Neary said.

“All those things have called for us to do some transformation in the ICBM force. The Nuclear Posture Review, of course, changed the triad,” he continued. “The triad now has ‘nuclear and conventional strike’ as one of the legs of the triad. The Nuclear Posture Review very much mentioned the uncertainty of the future—the irrational decision-makers. We’ve got to be prepared for anything.”

Referring to the strategic mission charter of USSTRATCOM Commander Admiral James O Ellis Jr., Neary explained, “I’ve heard Admiral Jim Ellis from STRATCOM talk about his global strike mission and the possibility of a two o’clock in the morning phone call. What is he going to do when he has to apply force somewhere half way around the world in an hour or less? Well, I think I know what he’s going to do and I think you all do too, because I think you’ll be part of it as well.

“The QDR suggested that we talk about different platform mixes and that you could no longer have the luxury of platforms doing one thing. And I think that’s part of the transformation that the ICBMs are going to have to go through,” Neary continued.

That transformation is currently unfolding in three major arenas: legacy system modernization, selected platform deactivation and future new system analysis. Some of these include both nuclear and conventional tracks.

Legacy System Modernization

“Somehow we have found the money and the support to keep the ICBM force as we know it today—the 500 Minuteman IIIs—sustained through 2020,” Neary said. “It’s the idea of jacking up the radiator cap and driving a new car under it. And I’m very happy about that.

“It’s changing out the guidance sets, changing out the propulsion, and having the capability to put the Peacekeeper warhead on Minuteman III,” Neary said. “It’s changing out the operational ground equipment and modernizing the rapid execution and combat targeting equipment in the capsule. My hat is off to you because that was very much in doubt not too many years ago.”

Another aspect of ICBM legacy force modernization involves a program concept identified as “Minuteman III Elite.” The first activity under the Elite program, known as “screening,” is already taking place within the 20th Air Force.

Neary described the screening process this way: “They have set aside a small number of the Minuteman III force, identifying those sorties that have the most modern guidance systems, the best performing electronics and, in some cases, the best locations. And they identify those to the decision-makers. If we ever have to respond to Admiral Ellis’ two o’clock in the morning telephone call to do something quickly, those will have already been identified. So that’s the screening process.

“The ‘grooming’ process is the second track of the Minuteman III Elite force,” he continued. “It’s a subset of the Minuteman force, where they are exploring some practical modifications to some of the current systems, such as GPS-aided guidance, for example, as a way of putting an earth penetrating re-entry vehicle on some of the missiles. And all of those are examples of the grooming process. Space Command’s hope is to do that and get some of those sorties outfitted with these capabilities within five years.”

At the same time that the Minuteman III force is being modernized and screened with an eye toward potential “Minuteman III Elite” configuration, the Air Force continues the deactivation activities surrounding its 50 MX Peacekeeper missiles. Peacekeeper deactivation activities started in October 2002, with the process projected to span three years.

During the 10-day deactivation process, the Peacekeeper missile stages and sections are removed from the silos and shipped to Hill Air Force Base in Ogden, UT, for possible alternative use.

The MK21 warheads removed from the Peacekeepers will also likely see future application under the Safety Enhanced Re-entry Vehicle program. Program planners note that both the MK21 and the MK12A (the current warhead on the Minuteman III) will likely be used through the remainder of the Minuteman III program.

Land-Based Deterrent

Along with Minuteman III modernization/Minuteman III Elite, the second transformational vehicle on the nuclear side of the ICBM arena is a potential Minuteman III replacement system called the Land-Based Strategic Deterrent (LBSD).

“The process for transforming the sustained Minuteman III force over the next 16 or 18 years is a process that the Air Force calls the land-based strategic deterrent analysis of alternatives,” Neary explained. “It’s a very good process and it’s already underway. It’s going to be complete in FY ’05. And it supports a new program start. Did you ever think you’d hear that for ICBMs? I had my doubts sometimes. But it supports a new program start for FY ’07.”

The “underway” aspects cited by Neary included the release of a September 2003 Request for Information (RFI) for both an initial LBSD delivery vehicle concept and initial LBSD security concept. As outlined in the RFI synopsis, “Air Force Space Command [AFSPC] is investigating potential concepts to support the LBSD analysis of alternatives [AoA] study for the next-generation deterrent system.”

This RFI initiates a concept call for transformational delivery vehicles meeting the land-based strategic nuclear deterrent mission need statement and LBSD concept of operations (CONOPS). In addition, the AoA will study each concept’s potential as a multiple-use platform—how it might satisfy or partially satisfy other AFSPC mission needs such as prompt global strike and operationally responsive spacelift. Concepts should address enhanced performance, decreased manpower and reduced maintenance and operations footprint.

Commensurate with this concept call, the RFI requests an assessment of the feasibility, technical maturity and growth potential of the enabling technologies for each concept. This is one of multiple RFIs that will address the entire next-generation deterrent system.

The Air Force anticipates a future competitive evolutionary acquisition program starting in 2005 or 2006, to begin replacing the existing system in 2018. This RFI includes the following sub-system areas: propulsion, guidance, re-entry systems and re-entry vehicles.

The next-generation deterrent system may be based in existing Minuteman III silos, with significantly updated supporting infrastructure, where necessary. The system may also use innovative deployment and basing strategies in addition to or in place of existing Minuteman III silos, including mobile basing, fixed basing with mobile elements and new silo schemes.

“They’ve already put out the RFI, which is kind of the starting gun in that race, in really three areas: new delivery systems, command and control systems, and security systems, which we know is very important in today’s culture,” Neary said.

A Conventional Future

In parallel with the multiple transformation tracks on the nuclear side of America’s ICBM force, Neary cited the possible emergence of a new track focusing on the global missile delivery of new conventional warhead designs.

“The first part of this track is something that’s underway already: the joint Air Force and Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency demonstration called FALCON—force application and launch from CONUS,” he explained. “This program seeks to have a demonstration of the Common Arrow Vehicle [CAV]. It will carry a conventional payload. This demonstration will demonstrate the military utility and will also, in subsequent phases, seek to find a common booster or the best booster to launch this conventional Common Arrow Space Vehicle, which has ‘dead eye’ accuracy on the target side. The FALCON program also seeks to have a demonstration of these responsive small launch vehicles by about 2007.

“The CAV has some really interesting concepts behind it,” Neary added. “Not only can it deliver a conventional munition that might want to be a penetrating munition, but it can also deliver other normal conventional munitions over a target area. It might even be able to deliver a small UAV which would unfold its wings and do its job as an ISR asset over the target area.”

A second aspect of the conventional transformation track involves how Air Force Space Command might respond to USSTRATCOM’s new mission need statement for a precision conventional global strike capability.

“We’ve already got global deterrence, and have had that for the last 40 years. But now we need to do and be ready to do precision global strike in a conventional sense,” Neary said.

Possibilities for meeting this mission statement range from the CAV to conventional applications for deactivated Peacekeeper missiles.

Referring to the findings of the Defense Science Board Future Strategic Strike committee, published in February, Neary noted, “They also commended to Air Force Space Command the future use of Peacekeeper boosters positioned on both coasts with some sort of a conventional munition on the top, for rapid reaction.

“The final part of the conventional transformation track is Operational Responsive Spacelift capability,” Neary concluded. “And that is a way to find a common or a new way to get these Common Arrow Vehicles and other things up into space so that they can re-enter and do the job that they need to do on the target end.”

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