Issue Date: October 11, 2004
New flight path for missile program?
Space command to examine job cuts, remote work
By Nicole Gaudiano
Times staff writer
Tomorrow’s missile fields could have fewer operators, maintainers and security forces, all pared down by technology that would allow for more remote work and spare security forces from responding to launch-facility alarms that are accidentally tripped by wildlife.
Space command will soon begin a yearlong analysis of alternatives that will ultimately show what blend of capabilities and manpower will work after 2018, when today’s Minuteman III nukes finally age out, according to Col. Rick Patenaude, Air Force Space Command’s chief of deterrence and strike requirements.
Patenaude couldn’t say specifically how many billets a new system would cut, but he said manpower could be reduced “significantly.”
“We send 100 crew members out to the field every day, all throughout Montana, Wyoming, Nebraska, and 100 crew members drive home,” he said. “That was the right thing to do in the 1960s in the height of the Cold War. Today, I think we could come up with a more efficient way to do that.”
The United States has fewer than 20 Peacekeeper missiles, all of which are scheduled to be deactivated by October 2005; and 500 Minuteman III missiles, which currently are being modernized. But even with the improvements, the Minuteman nukes will still need to be replaced, officials have said.
First operational in the 1970s, the system is manpower-intensive. Airmen who work in the missile field deploy for minimums of 145 to 200 days each year, and a trip to work for some can take up to three hours.
Among the system’s needs are greater accuracy, range, reliability and hard target kill capability — “things that Minuteman III as it exists today can’t do very well,” Patenaude said.
Air Force Space Command is examining the “Land-Based Strategic Deterrent” concept, which could offer missiles with different options for accuracy, range or warheads. It is even looking at different basing modes that could be mobile.
Patenaude said his team has been digging out the concept of operations and the requirements documents for a Small Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile, a lightweight missile authorized for development during the Reagan administration but canceled in 1992. Those missiles were to be housed in mobile launchers based at widespread locations. What makes that scenario interesting today is that the crew was not hard-wire-connected to the missile for launch commands and retargeting, he said.
For the Minuteman, the rate of information movement between the silo and the launch control center is very slow. But as soon as that data rate is increased, missile operators can go network-centric and have fewer people monitoring the status of a missile, he said.
“Say at the main operating base there was a hub — it could monitor all 150 or 200 missiles,” he said. “That’s just one possibility.”
Higher data rates would also help the maintainers. If they could do remote diagnostics on the missiles, they would know exactly what’s wrong with the rocket before having to drive to it.
Air Force Space Command is also looking at systems that could increase the average time between failures from two to seven times what is experienced today, he said.
Another problem in the missile field is the security forces’ inability to discern an actual threat at a launch facility from the missile alert facility. Last year, 12,000 security alarms went off across the missile wings, requiring a response, and none of them was a threat, he said. The alarms can be tripped by anything from a snow drift to wildlife.
The Air Force is taking short-term measures to aid security. But that system is for situational awareness, he said. It’s “not designed to say, ‘That’s a rabbit. We don’t need to go,’” Patenaude said.
With the next generation system, leaders want to want to go one step farther, to where security forces would have more confidence that the image they see on the camera can’t be spoofed.
“You don’t want to waste your time having guys running out there to shoo rabbits away,” he said. “And if there are bad folks out there, you want to delay any useful work for them so you can respond to it.”