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 first in a two-part series.
For more than 50 years, rural American pastures in the Great Plains have housed a key leg in the air-, land- and sea-based strategic deterrent triad – mission-ready Airmen controlling highly survivable, nuclear-armed Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles.
Depot-level maintenance of the boosters, launch control centers, launch facilities, and key support equipment for the Minuteman III is performed by Hill’s 309th Missile Maintenance Group, part of the Ogden Air Logistics Complex.
The Air Force has 150 launch facilities and 15 associated launch control centers “deployed in place” at each of three locations -- Malmstrom AFB, Montana; Minot AFB, North Dakota; and F.E. Warren AFB, Wyoming. The Airmen and ICBMs are “on strategic alert” around the clock to respond to orders from the President.
To comply with the New START treaty, the United States is reducing the number of ICBMs that are on strategic alert from 450 to 400 leaving 50 launch facilities in reserve. This enables the Air Force to plan and execute a Programmed Depot Maintenance, or PDM, effort for the first time in the life of the weapon system.
The launch facilities are underground silos, each with a 110-ton blast door for protection. All of the silos are networked together and controlled by Missile Combat Crew members in underground blast-proof launch control centers.
This is the first time since 1971, when the Minuteman III first became operational at Minot AFB, that a portion of the Minuteman III fleet is being relieved of its combat assignment long enough to receive PDM in the same way aircraft have for decades.
“We’re taking advantage of that drawdown to restore vital hardness-critical systems to full mission capability – repair water leaks, mitigate corrosion, and generally posture the weapons system to remain safe, secure and reliable until the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent program (next generation ICBM) can achieve full mission capability in the mid-2030’s,” said Col. Eric Jackson, commander of the 309th Missile Maintenance Group. “These are all things we couldn’t do as effectively – or at all – while the launch facility was on strategic alert.”
The entire Minuteman III fleet will be inspected and restored during the course of an eight-year cycle. The maintenance process takes about 50 days for each launch facility or launch control center.
The effort targets four major areas through an eight-year cycle: launch facility, launch control center, solid-rocket booster (stages 1, 2 and 3), and liquid-propellant propulsion system rocket engine, said Lt. Col. Brian Young, product support technical director, at the Air Force Nuclear Weapons Center, in a recently published Air Force story.
Within the launch facilities and launch control centers, there are a variety of components targeted to ensure the readiness and health of the site, including shock isolators, various launcher closure components, overpressure-protecting blast valves and blast doors, and environmental control system components, Young said.
As each of the 50 launch facilities are placed into the rotating reserve status for maintenance, the booster is removed from the launch facility by Airmen from the operating wing and returned to Hill AFB by 309 MMXG drivers, where they undergo programmed depot maintenance.
After the booster PDM is completed at Hill, it is returned to the field and placed in a newly repaired launch facility which is then returned to strategic alert to make way for the next launch facility to receive PDM.
“As a result of the hard work and diligence of the depot and field maintainers, supported by government and contractor supply-chain partners and guided by exceptional engineers and program managers from the AF Nuclear Weapons Center, the nation can rest easy knowing the Minuteman III and associated systems will remain, ready, alert and combat effective,” Jackson said.