HILL AIR FORCE BASE, Utah — Editor’s Note: Hill Air Force Base units are helping ensure the nuclear triad remains an effective strategic deterrent now and into the future. This is the second in a two part series.
The nation needs a robust nuclear deterrent. Not just any missiles, but the most responsive strategic weapon systems in the world.
The Air Force is responsible for two legs of the U.S. strategic nuclear triad, intercontinental ballistic missiles and bombers. Airmen, civilian employees and contractors here at Hill are working hard to provide that strategic ICBM need by overseeing the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent program, the ICBM for the future.
Why a new weapon system?
For more than 50 years the Air Force’s ICBMs and the Airmen who operate and maintain them have helped ensure peace by operating and sustaining this leg of the nuclear triad.
“We have Airmen right now, as we speak, defending the homeland, and that nuclear deterrent underwrites every military operation on the globe,” said Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David L. Goldfein in a recent speech prioritizing the nuclear enterprise. He also noted that while conventional wars go on, the major nuclear powers have not gone to war since World War II because of the deterrence nuclear weapons provide.
As nations develop more sophisticated anti-ballistic missile systems, the United States needs a weapon system that can effectively survive those capabilities and provide a credible threat. The current ICBM, the Minuteman III, has technology that was developed in the 1960s. Since Minuteman III missiles are no longer in production, inventory will dwindle in the coming years due to testing and attrition issues as the missiles provide near 24/7 alert coverage.
“Future capability requirements drive the need for a new weapon system. Attrition of Minuteman III drives our schedule,” said Col. Heath Collins, System Program Manager for the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent program at the Air Force Nuclear Weapons Center’s ICBM Systems Directorate at Hill AFB.
However, while the Minuteman III is typical of a system decades past its original design life, Collins is confident they are viable for another 30 years, if required, due to current sustainment and maintenance programs, such as Programmed Depot Maintenance, or PDM.
The Air Force determined the most cost-effective way to increase ICBM capabilities was to acquire an entirely new weapon system, the GBSD. Developing and fielding this system has been called a “foundational” priority by service leaders.
“The warfighter needs these capabilities and we can’t just make incremental improvements to Minuteman III. It would be like taking your VHS player and trying to make it a Blu-Ray player by swapping out parts,” Collins said.
Government and contract workers at the ICBM Systems Directorate already sustain the Minuteman III and all the associated systems. Now, around 300 of them are playing a large part in development of the future ICBM. Fifty more Air Force civilians are being added this year.
“It’s a big program – 400 missiles, 450 silos across five different states, control centers, command and control infrastructure, thousands of miles of cables, transportation equipment,” Collins said. “While we’ll use some of the existing infrastructure, like the silos, the entirety needs to be engineered for the new missile.”
Who will build it and what’s Hill’s role?
The new weapon system will be produced by a defense contractor, selected by the Air Force after a design competition. To begin the process, the GBSD program office at Hill created a library for the bidders with hundreds of documents, along with a weapon system specification and capability requirements to guide the companies in their design process.
“We’ve provided a wealth of information. Even before we presented the request last year, we released five draft requests for proposals to industry and received comments back. We had more than 250 discussions with industry to review the request,” Collins said. “We want to make crystal-clear they understand exactly what the government is looking for. We are being as transparent as possible to better inform them and, in turn, receive better proposals from them.”
The program is currently in the Technology Maturation and Risk Reduction Phase, which means defense contractors are simultaneously preparing “end-to-end” preliminary designs of a full weapon system. Up to two of the companies will be awarded 36-month development contracts by the end of this fiscal year.
Eventually, the competition will be narrowed to one supplier who will finish the final design of the weapon system and produce missiles to be tested and fielded. The plan is for the first missiles to be produced by the late 2020s and fielding will be completed in the 2030s, Collins said.
During the entire time, the men and women of the ICBM Systems Directorate will continue to oversee the process.
“Hill is ICBM country. We’re very humbled by the opportunity we have here and very honored to do it,” Collins said. “We have a lot of work ahead of us but this workforce is very driven, very committed. It means a lot to us. It means a lot to Hill AFB and it’s going to mean a lot to this Utah community.”
Collins says it’s hard to say exactly how many new jobs the program will bring to Utah but there will definitely be an increase during the decade-long overlap while GBSD is rolled out and Minuteman III remains at the ready.
It’s likely the prime contractor, support contractors and other government agencies will need workers at Hill to support the GBSD program, which is scheduled to remain in service into the 2070s.