As the Air Force transitions its nuclear missile force from the Minuteman III to the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD) in the coming decade, the Air Force will have to manage a delicate balancing act: simultaneously sustain the legacy force while developing and deploying its replacement.
“The handoff between Minuteman III and GBSD is the most complex [replacement operation] ever undertaken between two nuclear weapon systems,” said Col. Luke Cropsey, ICBM Systems director, in a recent Air Force release.
Darrell Graddy, president of Integrated ICBM Support Services (i2S2), a joint venture of three major defense contractors—Leidos, Amentum, and Apex—has spent years managing the complexity surrounding sensitive nuclear programs, so he sees both sides of the challenge: sustaining aging equipment as the supply chain begins to break down and working out the kinks and faults of new systems and cutting-edge technologies.
Minuteman III isn’t just old, it’s getting harder and harder to sustain because critical components are reaching the end of their useful lives. “We’ve got components for which we’re trying to get replacement parts that aren’t in design any longer,” he said. “We’re trying to do the work in some facilities that haven’t been sustained for 60 years.”
The promise of modernization includes the ability to implement digital engineering design and predictive maintenance supported by artificial intelligence (AI), using machine learning (ML) to proactively anticipate when repairs need to be made rather than relying solely on old-school preventative maintenance schedules.
“How are you going to do that?” Graddy asks. Not by patching in piecemeal solutions, but rather by approaching the task holistically in a system of systems approach. “You have to have an integrated sustainment and modernization plan that actually captures all that.”
Graddy described a vision in which modern tools help assure sustainment for Minuteman III more cost-effectively than today, while at the same time establishing the digital engineering tools and processes that GBSD will require going forward.
Minuteman III was engineered with legacy paper blueprints. GBSD will be engineered digitally, enabling digital models that can be simulated and tested and stressed in a computer environment. The result will be computer models that can predict performance, maintenance requirements, and provide insights into what components and sub-systems to focus system monitors on and gauge the overall operational readiness health of key systems—and how best to do that. AI-enabled sensors will likewise support maintenance, supporting the predictive upkeep that will optimize the use of labor and parts and holds down costs.
Predictive tools will likewise inform the supply chain, tackling a problem that plagues systems like these that must remain operable for 30-50 years, spanning generations of technology refresh. This is why “sustainment costs are consistently becoming a greater challenge,” Graddy said. With predictive analysis, “we allow ourselves opportunities to get in front of that end-of-life situation, to develop new design solutions with vendors, and develop new sources of supply when needed.”
All these advances would require an ongoing investment on the human side.
By training professionals for career-long engagements in ICBM support, “that allows us to have the right people at the right place all of the time,” he said. “That is one of the biggest opportunities for us: To ensure we’re always ready to provide the mission with an agile, flexible and responsive workforce.”
Walking hand in hand
Supporting Minuteman III while simultaneously migrating toward GBSD must be seen as interrelated efforts proceeding hand in hand, Graddy said, because by practical necessity, both must leverage a common approach to modernized technologies.
“They’re going to be using the same critical infrastructures all upgraded and modernized,” Graddy said. “They’re going to be using the same facilities, only upgraded and modernized. They’re going to be using the same workforce—only re-trained in the new technologies.”
With that in mind, “it’s so important to ensure there’s an understanding, where any decision that’s made on Minuteman III is compared to its impact and risk to GBSD acquisition,” he said. By the same token, GBSD technology insertion should be evaluated in terms of how it could impact Minuteman III.
“The two are linked together,” he said. “By integrating all of our planning, and all of our actions, we allow ourselves to sustain with the highest efficiency of operational readiness, and achieve the lowest cost in terms of operational support.”
All these efforts are unfolding in a high-stakes context. On the one hand, GBSD promises to bring a powerful new capability to the table.
“The GBSD weapon system will have increased accuracy, extended range, and enhanced security, which will ensure that it is responsive to the emerging threat environment and unforeseen contingencies,” said Col. Jason Bartolome, who heads the GBSD Systems Directorate, in a May 2020 news release.
At the same time, the military faces a fast-changing threat landscape. “The Minuteman III was developed and deployed against threats that were known at the time,” Graddy said. Today, “there are new adversaries out there … and new threats are being developed.”
That’s why sustaining and modernizing this nuclear capability is so important.
“The ICBM is a critical asset of the overall nuclear triad for this nation,” Graddy said. “It is the one that’s ready at all times—400 missiles, ready on alert, 24-by-7,” Graddy said. Going forward, our nation is looking to the Air Force and its support community to ensure that capability remains at the highest state of readiness.
“Our opportunity as a systems-engineering and integration support function is to fully support and enable the Air Force and the industry OEMs that are building these new products, these new platforms, these new weapon systems achieving Mission Success,” he said.
Ultimately the success of that effort will depend on the people involved. That means there’s a need for ongoing professional training among those already doing the work, as well as a need to introduce students as early as high school to this critical career field.
“Those students are the potential employees of the future,” Graddy said.
“We’re giving them science, technology, engineering, and math availability and awareness to allow them to expand their knowledge and skills as individuals,” he said. “Why not allow them to have awareness of this vital mission … and allow them to have the opportunity to decide if they want to be a part of it? That’s how we can expand the next-generation workforce.”
With a new generation of digital tools, updated processes, and a trained workforce, it will be possible “to accomplish it all in a manner that ensures the Ground Based Deterrent is sustained and fully operational at all times, to provide the safety and security of this nation and, quite frankly, the globe,” he said. “We do that through collaboration. We do that through integration. We do that through modernization.”