Thursday, November 2, 2023

They Are Just Old.

I am talking about this, of course. And I mean old as in technology sense. 

The Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) was “safely terminated” at 12:06am Pacific time, “due to an anomaly during a test launch from Vandenberg Space Force Base, California,” said the Air Force Global Strike Command. According to the US military, the missile nevertheless provided “vital data” and that the command “learns lessons from every test launch,” so it can ensure the “continued reliability and accuracy” of the Minuteman III. The command said it would form a Launch Analysis Group to investigate the cause of the anomaly, which will include representatives of the 377th Test and Evaluation Group, the 576th Flight Test Squadron, the Space Launch Delta 30 Safety Office and the Air Force Nuclear Weapons Center, among others. Wednesday’s test was announced by Pentagon spokesman Brigadier General Pat Ryder in Tuesday’s press briefing, as a way to demonstrate the “redundancy and reliability of our strategic-deterrence system while sending a visible message of assurance to allies.”

Everyone gets things malfunctioning once in a while, this in and of itself is nothing special, but here is the issue--problems with the US ground-based nuclear deterrent are, however, not new. Let's recall this:

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Just over half of the 183 nuclear missile launch officers at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana have been implicated in a widening exam cheating scandal, the Air Force said on Thursday, acknowledging it had “systemic” problem within its ranks. The cheating was discovered during an investigation into illegal drug possession among airmen, when test answers were found in a text message on one missile launch officer’s cell phone. The Air Force initially said 34 officers either knew about the cheating or cheated themselves.But Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James told a Pentagon news conference on Thursday that the total number of implicated officers had grown to 92, all of them at Malmstrom, one of three nuclear missile wings overseeing America’s 450 inter-continental missiles, or ICBMs.

Yes, this was in 2014 and it is reasonable to assume that the problem was addressed but, read the whole piece--it explains institutional issues within US nuclear force and those are not easily addressed. And then, of course, there is this issue of technological development. Minuteman III has been around since 1970s with upgrades in 2010s, which included the replacement of the solid propellant, which do have the tendency to go bad over time. But, in the end, it is still an old missile. 

Compare this now to Russia's constant upgrade of her deterrent which includes such ICBMS as Topol-M (introduced in 1997), RS 24 Yars (introduced in 2010) and now RS-28 Sarmat which entered first line service this year. The difference cannot be starker. This is not to mention still serving RS-36M2 Voevoda (aka Satan II) introduced in 1988. I could continue the list, including 1975 introduced UR-100N Stiletto ICBM, which was now upgraded to carry Avangard hyper-sonic strategic vehicles and is in the first-line service now. So, it is not enough to just maintain but to constantly develop such a complex technology and at this stage it is clear that technology-wise the gap between Russia and the US grows and, in fact, accelerates. 

So, in this respect initial delays of two tests and now a failure of Minuteman III signify a rather precarious state which US deterrent finds itself in. In this particular case the failure was ironic since the stated goal was to send the message to allies. Well, they surely got the message. It is clear that there will be requests now for additional funding of the LGM-35A Sentinel--a replacement for Minuteman III, which should see first deployment somewhere in 2030s. Well, I guess will see if we live then, if this program will be able to lift off.

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