New ICBM Updates US Nuclear Missiles 12/10 09:33
F.E. WARREN AIR FORCE BASE, Wyo. (AP) -- The control stations for America's
nuclear intercontinental ballistic missiles have a sort of 1980s retro look,
with computing panels in sea foam green, bad lighting and chunky control
switches, including a critical one that says "launch."
Those underground capsules are about to be demolished and the missile silos
they control will be completely overhauled. A new nuclear missile is coming, a
gigantic ICBM called the Sentinel. It's the largest cultural shift in the land
leg of the Air Force's nuclear missile mission in 60 years.
But there are questions as to whether some of the Cold War-era aspects of
the Minuteman missiles that the Sentinel will replace should be changed.
Making the silo-launched missile more modern, with complex software and
21st-century connectivity across a vast network, may also mean it's more
vulnerable. The Sentinel will need to be well protected from cyberattacks,
while its technology will have to cope with frigid winter temperatures in the
Western states where the silos are located.
The $96 billion Sentinel overhaul involves 450 silos across five states,
their control centers, three nuclear missile bases and several other testing
facilities. The project is so ambitious it has raised questions as to whether
the Air Force can get it all done at once.
An overhaul is needed.
The silos lose power. Their 60-year old massive mechanical parts break down
often. Air Force crews guard them using helicopters that can be traced back to
the Vietnam War. Commanders hope the modernization of the Sentinel, and of the
trucks, gear and living quarters, will help attract and retain young
technology-minded service members who are now asked each day to find ways to
keep a very old system running.
Nuclear modernization was delayed for years because the United States
deferred spending on new missiles, bombers and submarines in order to support
the post 9/11 wars overseas. Now everything is getting modernized at once. The
Sentinel work is one leg of a larger, nuclear weapons enterprise-wide $750
billion overhaul that is replacing almost every component of U.S. nuclear
defenses, including new stealth bombers, submarines and ICBMs in the country's
largest nuclear weapons program since the Manhattan Project.
For the Sentinel, silo work could be underway by lead contractor Northrop
Grumman as soon as 2025. That is 80 years after the U.S. last used nuclear
weapons in war, the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan, which
killed an estimated 100,000 in an instant and likely tens of thousands more
For the Pentagon, there are expectations the modern Sentinel will meet
threats from rapidly evolving Chinese and Russian missile systems. The Sentinel
is expected to stay in service through 2075, so designers are taking an
approach that will make it easier to upgrade with new technologies in the
coming years. But that's not without risk.
"Sentinel is a software-intensive program with a compressed schedule," the
Government Accountability Office reported this summer. "Software development is
a high risk due to its scale and complexity and unique requirements of the
nuclear deterrence mission."
Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall has acknowledged the challenges the
program is facing.
"It's been a long time since we did an ICBM," Kendall said in November at a
Center for New American Security event in Washington. It's "the biggest thing,
in some ways, that the Air Force has ever taken on."
"Sentinel, I think quite honestly, is struggling a little bit," he said.
By far, the biggest cultural shift the Sentinel will bring is the
connectivity for all those who secure, maintain, operate and support the
system. The overhaul touches almost everything, even including new equipment
for military chefs who cook for the missile teams. The changes could improve
efficiency and quality of life on the bases but may also create vulnerabilities
that the analog Minuteman missiles have never faced.
Since the first silo-based Minuteman went on alert at Montana's Malmstrom
Air Force Base on Oct. 27, 1962 -- the day Cuba shot down a U-2 spy plane at
the height of the Cuban missile crisis -- the missile has "talked" to its
operators through thousands of miles of hard-wiring in cables buried
Those Hardened Intersite Cable Systems, or HICS, cables carry messages back
and forth from the missile to the missileer, who receives those messages
through a relatively new part of the capsule -- a firing control console called
REACT, for Rapid Execution and Combat Targeting, that was installed in the
It's a closed communication loop, and a very secure one that brings its own
headaches. Any time the Air Force wants to test one of the missiles, it
literally has to dig up the cables and splice them, to isolate that test
missile's wiring from the rest. Over decades of testing, there are now hundreds
of splices in those critical loops.
But it's also one of the Minuteman's best features. You would need a shovel
-- and a lot more -- to try to hack the system. Even when missile crews update
targeting codes, it is a mechanical, manual process.
Minuteman is "a very cyber-resilient platform," said Col. Charles Clegg, the
Sentinel system program manager.
Clegg said cybersecurity for the software-driven Sentinel has been a top
focus of the program, one that has all of their attention.
"Like Minuteman, Sentinel will still operate within a closed network.
However, to provide defense in depth, we will have additional security measures
at the boundary and inside the network, enabling our weapon system to operate
effectively in a cyber-contested environment," Clegg said.
Those who maintain the Minuteman III have tried over the years to bring in
new technology to make maintenance more efficient, but they have found that
sometimes the old manual way of tracking things -- sometimes literally with a
binder and pen -- is better, especially in frigid temperatures.
Nuclear missile fields are located in Colorado, Montana, Nebraska, North
Dakota and Wyoming. Those missiles need maintenance even in the winter, and
crews spend hours outside in sub-zero field conditions,
"An iPad won't survive a Montana winter" at the launch sites, where
maintenance crews have worked outdoors in temperatures of minus 20 degrees or
even minus 40 degrees, said Chief Master Sgt. Virgil Castro, the 741st missile
maintenance squadron's senior enlisted leader.
Also, when maintenance crews at Malmstrom tested some radio frequency
identification, or RFID, technology -- think of how seaports track items inside
cargo containers -- it created security vulnerabilities.
"Today, everything is connected to the internet of things. And you might
have a back door in there you don't even know" said Lt. Col. Todd Yehle, the
741st maintenance squadron commander. "With the old analog systems, you're not
hacking those systems."
What it means is that even though technology could automate the whole
operations process, one critical aspect of missile launch will remain the same.
If the day comes that another nuclear weapon must be fired, it will still be
teams of missileers validating the orders and activating a launch.
"It's the human in the loop," said Col. Johnny Galbert, commander of the
90th Missile Wing at F.E. Warren. "I think what it comes down to is we want to
rely on our airmen, our young officers out there, to make that decision, to be
able to interpret what higher headquarters is telling them or directing them to