Space and astronomy news and information for the American Southwest. Coverage includes Vandenberg AFB rocket and missile launches.

Wings Keep Minuteman Ready

By G.A. Volb, Ogden ALC Public Affairs

Reprinted with permission from Hilltop Times, Hill AFB, Utah

2005 December 1

Nearly five decades after the Minuteman ICBM missile entered the United State’s nuclear arsenal as President John F. Kennedy’s “Ace in the Hole,” Hill technicians are working to ensure it continues on “active duty” for the foreseeable future.

Since the missile system came on line it has watched over the nation as the cold war came to an end, the Ground Launched Cruise Missile was dismantled and Peacekeeper recently deactivated. Initially slated for a lifespan of a little more than 10 years, newest modifications will take the granddaddy of deterrence well into the 21st Century.

It’s thanks to Hill’s 526th ICBM Systems Wing and 309th Missile Maintenance Group that it continues to do the job. The two have teamed up to prolong its longevity, even cutting the involved process of maintenance time for the missiles in half, turning them around on time for more than a year now.

“The missiles are transported to Hill from various operational sites around the country as a complete assembly,” said John Grubb, a missile motors flight chief with the 309th. “(The assembly) consists of the three solid fuel rocket motors, flight controls, ordnance and the required cabling. Once the missile arrives at Hill, it’s transferred to our missile maintenance facility.”

The ordnance, Mr. Grubb stressed, are linear charges for stage separation, and not the actual warhead itself, which is cared for by the Department of Energy at a different depot.

The 43-year-old native of Layton said Hill’s facilities are specially designed for the unique requirements of missile maintenance. “We can control personnel access, temperature, lighting, and electrical discharge from employees,” a necessity given the volatile nature of their working environment, he said.

Once inside, the missile components are dismantled and its three stages separated, inspected, repaired if needed and put through a stringent testing process in order to ensure it’s ready to be reassembled.

“Following strict technical guidelines,” Mr. Grubb emphasized, “teams of five to seven ordnance mechanics install the flight controls, cabling, ordnance and other components. The assembly process normally averages six to seven days, and then the completed assembly is tested to ensure the missile will perform as required.”

“Once it’s reassembled and the testing documentation reviewed by the 526th for accuracy, the missile is ready to be returned to operational missile sites,” said Brent Patton, 309th Missile Assembly Section Chief. “It’s impossible for all this to happen without the technical support and program management provided by the 526th; it’s a joint relationship that helps us meet the requirements of the war fighters in the field.”

Mr. Patton, a native of Pocatello, Idaho, but now living in Ogden, said “the complexity of the missile system, and requirements ensuring each missile works as planned, presents the team with many challenges. Transportation, facilities, personnel, materials, technical documentation and instruction must all come together flawlessly to be successful.”

It’s a tight-knit relationship that begins every morning at 7, when they go over current issues, progress, and goals among other things, according to Capt. Pat Monahan, 526th ICBM Systems Wing solid propulsion program manager. In the end, however, much of what the two accomplish relies on the all-mighty dollar.

“Funding is the ultimate driver of production flow,” said Captain Monahan. “For anyone who understands how money flows within the federal government, you can imagine just how complicated it is to execute funds. There are multitudes of checks and balances factored into the funding flow that require many levels of approval and correspondence from agency to agency. Fortunately for us, we have a strong cadre (group) of financial and acquisitions managers that consistently traverse the funding sources to find needed resources.”

Mr. Monahan, originally from Basye, Va., said a new Minuteman III would cost the taxpayer around $3.3 million. “Multiply that by the number of ICBMs now on strategic alert (500) and you get a very large number. By providing maintenance and sustainment here for the ICBM fleet, however, the depot saves in the neighborhood of $100-200 million of taxpayer’s money annually.”

“We understand the mission of our customer and how vital a part the Minuteman plays in the strategic defense of our nation,” Patton said, responding to the monetary and technical challenges the two organizations face. “So we all take great pride in producing missile boosters on time, while focusing on safety and quality.”

The end product continues to play a key role in America’s nuclear deterrent posture, and will do so for the foreseeable future.

“Operationally, the ICBMs are employed by 20th Air Force and three space wings to deter against aggression towards our country,” said the 32-year-old Mr. Monahan, now living in Roy. “Should deterrence fail, the President reserves the right to call upon his ICBM weapon system, which maintains a constant state of readiness at a greater than 99 percent alert level. So it’s imperative for us, as a team, to provide fluid depot-level support to the operational ICBM space wings at Malmstrom AFB, Mont., Minot AFB, N.D., and F.E. Warren AFB, Wyo.

“The Minuteman has been a formidable deterrent throughout the decades -- the result of its tremendous reliability and testing success rates,” Mr. Monahan said. “While the operational Minuteman program has existed for 43 years now, it has undergone a complete overhaul many times and its aging components are continuously evaluated, tested and upgraded as necessary. “Make no mistake about it though,” he added, “the 2005 Minuteman III ICBM is the world’s premier ICBM weapon system.”

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