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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 
over time.

   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 

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