VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif.—
You see the intercontinental ballistic missile before you hear it. Upon ignition in its underground silo, the horizon blooms bright red-orange, and a ball of light rises west over the Pacific Ocean. A dull roar intensifies as the unarmed nuclear missile jets upward to arc over the moon on its way to the Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands. Brief sparks mark each time a section of the Minuteman III burns up and falls away. A jagged trail of smoke imprints its path across the sky. The crowd below claps as the missile body separates from its nonnuclear payload and disappears into the dark. It would splash down more than 4,200 miles away, about 30 minutes later.
As these weapons approach 50 years since they were first deployed across the United States, the Air Force is assessing whether its more than 400 Minuteman IIIs can still perform, and is looking ahead to the future Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD) missiles that will replace the Minuteman III.
How reliable is the weapon system? How ready are our test procedures? How ready is the crew?Col. Omar Colbert, 576th Flight Test Squadron commander
Airmen here test-launched a nonnuclear ICBM at 12:33 a.m. on Feb. 5 to see whether a new fuse in development is working as expected, a test that exemplifies the in-between space the land-based missile enterprise occupies right now. This test was slightly different from the usual assessments by the 576th Flight Test Squadron, which typically focus a few times a year on how boosters are performing. Those operational tests require pulling a weapon from its silo, whether at F.E. Warren Air Force Base, Wyo., Malmstrom Air Force Base, Mo., or Minot Air Force Base, N.D., then bringing it to Vandenberg for launch.
The information gleaned from such tests helps the Air Force tweak procedures and systems, shapes future parts design, and bolsters the war plans of U.S. Strategic Command. “We’re looking at, does it go where it’s supposed to? How accurate is the weapon system?” said 576th FLTS Commander Col. Omar Colbert. “How reliable is the weapon system? How ready are our test procedures? How ready is the crew to do what they’re called upon to do, and how well does everything function?”
Next Up: GBSD
The coming Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent missile has lofty goals: To be modern and digital, but not hackable; to ease the burden on operators, but not cut them out; to bring on a capable new weapon, but not upset the balance of global nuclear deterrence; to spend many billions creating that weapon, but not bankrupt other parts of the federal budget.
But to own an effective deterrent, the United States has to make sure it works—meaning the Pentagon needs to design a new ICBM test regime. The Air Force is in the early stages of that work now.
The GBSD program is slated to include more than 600 intercontinental ballistic missiles with a price tag of $22 billion for development alone. Northrop Grumman, the lone contractor after Minuteman III manufacturer Boeing halted its bid, is scheduled to start delivering new GBSD missiles in 2029 for underground silos in Montana, North Dakota, Wyoming, Colorado, and Nebraska.
The Air Force Operational Test and Evaluation Center is responsible for testing while GBSD is still in development. The 576th FLTS at Vandenberg., the sole squadron in charge of testing the existing inventory of Minuteman III ICBMs, is still figuring out how it will help with that phase. Traditionally, it would handle operational tests once the weapons are fielded, checking the viability of everything from compatibility with the existing silos to communications with the launch range.
The small cadre of ICBM testers could feel the crunch as GBSD comes online
About 200 people work for the 576th, which spends about $11 million each year—a number that will have to change in the future, Colbert said.
“We don’t yet know what the new system will look like and what it will require to operate the weapon system,” Colbert said Feb. 3 at Vandenberg.
The unit is responsible for trying out technology upgrades to the Minuteman III that can roll over to the GBSD, such as a fuse modernization program. Airmen are working through a slate of five ICBM improvements worth more than $3 billion right now, according to a squadron briefing.
Still, vetting GBSD could become a little less strenuous, a little simpler, and somewhat less time-consuming than the Minuteman III, if only because the older weapon needs closer scrutiny. The new missile’s components may be easier to swap out for different test needs as well.
As the Air Force figures out where and how to deploy the missiles, and how many launch control centers and silos to fill, it must also determine what it needs to maintain the weapon system, Colbert said.
The service holds live test launches of unarmed ICBMs at least a few times a year, though the number changes depending on what data officials want to collect. Some launches are intended to measure the reliability of the missile, for example, while others seek to measure the performance of system’s upgrades or of the connection to airborne launch platforms such as the E-4 Nightwatch plane.
Today, ICBM testers spend months planning the movement of an ICBM to Vandenberg from the operational missile wings at Malmstrom, F.E. Warren, and Minot, or from the maintenance depot at Hill AFB, Utah. In each case, they must slowly and carefully transport the missiles across the country, outfit them with test-specific systems to track the weapon’s performance in flight, and load it into a tractor-trailer-like vehicle, which tips the missile into its silo.
That’s on top of the days they log traveling to the Air Force Nuclear Weapons Center, missile fields, and elsewhere to discuss Minuteman III sustainment, test planning, system development, and software with other USAF officials and the companies working on the new designs.
“We’re hoping to streamline and make a lot of those processes a lot more efficient and a lot more effective and a little bit less of a footprint required, as we gain access to new technology,” Colbert said. “Innovation is the key to all of that … not only with the developmental system, but also with our current system.”
“Innovation” includes automation, something that raises significant concerns for the nuclear enterprise, where safety depends on human input and redundancy, and leaders are more cautious about adopting changes than elsewhere in the force.
Colbert argues automation should play a limited role in the future of nuclear weapons. For instance, algorithms could change the way the U.S. handles targeting and tracking, yet stop short of creating a “dead hand” system that could launch missiles on its own. In testing, automation might mean more efficient ways to display data in control centers, among other places.
“I’d like to think that for nuclear weapons operations, we’ll always have a human hand in that process,” he said. “We don’t want to automate to the [same] extent where you will see within other weapons systems. … We want to make sure that we have trained, we have certified people … that we can count on to do the right thing in the right moments, and under authorized orders, from the right authority.”
The nuclear command, control, and communications (NC3) system is getting its own makeover, one that could ideally combine commercial and military-grade systems into a network so complex that adversaries can’t hack it. The GBSD, the first digital-age ICBM, has to talk to that command and control web without fail for successful launches. Future tests could possibly use red teaming to ensure the NC3 network is secure as part of preparation checklists, or enlist “friendly” hackers to look for vulnerabilities in the missile’s software.
Air Force Scientific Advisory Board Chairman James Chow said in 2017 that modern cyber threats change the equation when it comes to nuclear surety. “You cannot ever assure to 100 percent,” he said. So the Air Force needs to judge how much cyber risk it can accept for nuclear systems. Operational tests can show how well that standard holds up in the real world.
Certification also poses challenges for additive manufacturing (also called 3D printing), another emerging technology that could make the GBSD easier to test
Favorably, 3D printing could make it easier to swap out missile parts. The test enterprise already uses additive manufacturing to build training models for maintainers to work on, but introducing that technology into the real thing will be much more challenging.
“We would have to go through a rigorous process to make sure that anything that we produce met our nuclear certification requirements and standards,” Colbert said.
The Air Force must also overhaul its above-ground command centers with new monitors, workstations, and software.
Jerry Rogers, a flight test analyst at the squadron whose workspace is already upgraded, said the ICBM data experts have been in touch with the GBSD acquirers. With the new system, he said the squadron hopes to increase the amount of data gleaned from a test launch and be able to process more of that information.
GBSD’s upgrades can “probably give us a lot more situational awareness as we fly,” Rogers said. “We’ll see some things that we don’t necessarily see today … probably a better solution of the exact position and velocity of the vehicle, that type of stuff.”
“We are not going to use any more thermal paper,” he added. (Just a few years ago, the squadron retired thermal paper, an antiquated product that allows for inkless printing.)
Hardware and software that control the missile’s connection function, and other pieces needed for test also have improvements on the horizon.
Others at Vandenberg, in particular, an Airman overseeing weather information at the Western Range Operations Control Center, said he’s got all the data he needs to ensure successful test flights.
As the nuclear enterprise moves further into the 21st century, Air Force Global Strike Command Deputy Commander Lt. Gen. Anthony Cotton said they must consider the possibility that algorithms might replace some Airmen. Around 10,600 people currently work for 20th Air Force at F.E. Warren, the organization that oversees America’s 400 deployed intercontinental ballistic missiles and related operations daily.
“That could be a possibility. We haven’t gone down that path yet,” Cotton said of a smaller workforce. “How many people does it take to do a task today? And then how many people would it take to do a task tomorrow? We have to recognize that when we say there’s efficiencies, you might see efficiencies in manpower as well.”
The Air Force is waiting on Northrop to decide how many people it would need to run its system before reviewing manpower needs itself. Northrop declined to comment for this story.
Those tasked with guarding, operating, and sustaining ICBMs are supposed to be among the Air Force’s best and brightest, but the field has suffered in recent years, with scandals involving drug use, a test-cheating scandal, mental health issues, and low morale. In response, the Air Force began a public campaign to make those Airmen feel appreciated and improve its workforce.
Global Strike is working to cut the number of Airmen who rotate out of the missile enterprise from 43 percent to 20 percent—hoping that retention will build better leaders and grow institutional knowledge in the ranks.
These days, Colbert said, Global Strike is targeting engineers, scientists, and others with backgrounds that are well-suited to the nuclear mission instead of trying to turn anyone into a missileer or maintainer, whether they had an inherent interest or not.
“It’s a very competent and capable range of folks that we’re getting in now,” he said.
Command leaders want Airmen to learn about their ICBM career options so it might spark a desire to continue growing within the field. Cotton said he’s taken people onto airborne command post planes who had “no idea” they could occupy some of the five positions on those jets.
“I think we’ve done a much better job at doing that now than we did in the past,” he said. “Are we there yet? … Absolutely not.”
“This is something that you constantly have to have pressure on … to make sure that we’re going to have the right talent and have everybody ready when we do the transition to GBSD,” he said.
Missileers, who can sit underground for days at a time, hope the GBSD spurs added creature comforts in their control centers. They already have a chef upstairs to feed them, but they’d also like a shower and more workout equipment.
“Any kind of skylight would be nice,” 1st Lt. Claire Waldo, from the 12th Missile Squadron, said before the Feb. 5 test launch.
Airmen have a computer and a television in the capsule, but they can only use one at a time. It’d be great for one person to be able watch a show while the other catches up on work requirements, the 490th Missile Squadron’s 1st Lt. Mitch Nairn said.
Another request: a better, private toilet, instead of an austere one concealed by a curtain next to the workstation.
“It’s pretty much a prison,” Nairn said.
Down in the bunker, the dissonance between current ICBM mission systems and what they could become is tangible. Missileers no longer know what a knob on the dashboard labeled “WAR PLAN” was once used for.
Eight-inch floppy disks that connect the missile system to national decision-makers are retired, but smaller ones are still in place. Giant black folders hold piles of hard-copy instructions and computer screens—primitive by today’s standards—still get the job done.
The Airmen who work on the ICBMs every day were born decades after the first nuclear bombs exploded on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Nor do most remember the Cold War’s “duck- and-cover” drills under school desks or the fear of imminent nuclear destruction. But the possibility that they might one day be called upon to open their lockbox, remove the keys, turn the four switches and keys in sync, and launch a new era in nuclear weapons history—connecting the antiquated system to modern day in another way—is as real to them as the underground control stations they occupy 24 hours a day.
That mindset will carry through to the digital era of the GBSD as well. In the meantime, they’ll put up with the dials that no longer matter and the workstation that brings “Dr. Strangelove” to mind. They’re doing the best with what they’ve got, until a new weapon system for a new generation of nuclear experts is in place.
“For deterrence to be credible, you have to announce that, ‘Here’s our weapon system. It works as we designed, and it still works, even though it is aging,’” Colbert said. “We have the will. We have the intent. We have the training. We have the forces that are able to employ it professionally, safely, and reliably.”
As the United States prepares to develop its next-generation nuclear weapon, the question remains whether the GBSD will be tested with or without its warhead, the W87-1. America has only tested a live, operational nuclear weapon once, in 1962 during a submarine-launched ballistic missile event dubbed “Frigate Bird.”
The U.S. signed the United Nations’ 1996 Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty but has yet to ratify the agreement, keeping the door open to future nuclear vetting even though the nation hasn’t detonated such a weapon since 1992.
“The United States will not resume nuclear explosive testing unless necessary to ensure the safety and effectiveness of the U.S. nuclear arsenal,” stated the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review.
Patty-Jane Geller, a nuclear expert at the Heritage Foundation, believes the U.S. will stick to its moratorium.
Government laboratories have nonnuclear means of checking warheads and missile components for anomalies, Geller noted. But she suggested the U.S. might decide to resume explosive testing if a problem pops up that simulation methods can’t help fix, or when creating totally new warheads.
For now, though, she believes the political consensus appears to be in favor of continuing that approach.
“It is essential that U.S. leaders seek and support ways, including actions by the UN Security Council, to reinforce the de facto global nuclear testing moratorium and make it clear that further nuclear testing would be a threat to international peace and security,” Arms Control Association Executive Director Daryl Kimball said in 2016 at an event for the treaty’s 20-year anniversary.