New ICBM will take US nuclear missiles out of the Cold War-era

In this August 2023 photo provided by the U.S. Air Force, two missile launch officers, or missileers, finish a 24-hour underground shift at a launch control center at Malmstrom Air Force Base. The capsules are still very much like they were when they were first designed in the 1960s, with old gear, bad lighting and not a lot of room to move around. The capsules will be completely redesigned as part of the new Sentinel intercontinental ballistic missile system. While everything will be modernized and connected via 21st-century technology, there will still be a “human in the loop” if there was ever a launch. (U.S. Air Force via AP)
In this August 2023 photo provided by the U.S. Air Force, two missile launch officers, or missileers, finish a 24-hour underground shift at a launch control center at Malmstrom Air Force Base. The capsules are still very much like they were when they were first designed in the 1960s, with old gear, bad lighting and not a lot of room to move around. The capsules will be completely redesigned as part of the new Sentinel intercontinental ballistic missile system. While everything will be modernized and connected via 21st-century technology, there will still be a “human in the loop” if there was ever a launch. (U.S. Air Force via AP)

F.E. WARREN AIR FORCE BASE, Wyo. (AP) -- The control stations for America's nuclear intercontinental ballistic missiles have a sort of 1980s retro look, with computing panels in sea foam green, bad lighting and chunky control switches, including a critical one that says "launch."

Those underground capsules are about to be demolished and the missile silos they control will be completely overhauled. A new nuclear missile is coming, a gigantic ICBM called the Sentinel. It's the largest cultural shift in the land leg of the Air Force's nuclear missile mission in 60 years.

But there are questions as to whether some of the Cold War-era aspects of the Minuteman missiles the Sentinel will replace should be changed.

Making the silo-launched missile more modern, with complex software and 21st-century connectivity across a vast network, may also mean it's more vulnerable. The Sentinel will need to be well protected from cyberattacks, while its technology will have to cope with frigid winter temperatures in the Western states where the silos are located.

The $96 billion Sentinel overhaul involves 450 silos across five states, their control centers, three nuclear missile bases and several other testing facilities. The project is so ambitious it has raised questions as to whether the Air Force can get it all done at once.

The silos lose power. Their 60-year old massive mechanical parts break down often. Air Force crews guard them using helicopters that can be traced back to the Vietnam War. Commanders hope the modernization of the Sentinel, and of the trucks, gear and living quarters, will help attract and retain young technology-minded service members who are now asked each day to find ways to keep a very old system running.

Nuclear modernization was delayed for years because the United States deferred spending on new missiles, bombers and submarines in order to support the post 9/11 wars overseas. Now everything is getting modernized at once. The Sentinel work is one leg of a larger, nuclear weapons enterprise-wide $750 billion overhaul that is replacing almost every component of U.S. nuclear defenses, including new stealth bombers, submarines and ICBMs in the country's largest nuclear weapons program since the Manhattan Project.

For the Sentinel, silo work could be underway by lead contractor Northrop Grumman as soon as 2025. That is 80 years after the U.S. last used nuclear weapons in war, the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan, which killed an estimated 100,000 in an instant and likely tens of thousands more over time.

For the Pentagon, there are expectations the modern Sentinel will meet threats from rapidly evolving Chinese and Russian missile systems. The Sentinel is expected to stay in service through 2075, so designers are taking an approach that will make it easier to upgrade with new technologies in the coming years. But that's not without risk.

"Sentinel is a software-intensive program with a compressed schedule," the Government Accountability Office reported this summer. "Software development is a high risk due to its scale and complexity and unique requirements of the nuclear deterrence mission."

Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall has acknowledged the challenges the program is facing.

"It's been a long time since we did an ICBM," Kendall said in November at a Center for New American Security event in Washington. It's "the biggest thing, in some ways, that the Air Force has ever taken on."

"Sentinel, I think quite honestly, is struggling a little bit," he said.

New connections

By far, the biggest cultural shift the Sentinel will bring is the connectivity for all those who secure, maintain, operate and support the system. The overhaul touches almost everything, even including new equipment for military chefs who cook for the missile teams. The changes could improve efficiency and quality of life on the bases but may also create vulnerabilities that the analog Minuteman missiles have never faced.

Since the first silo-based Minuteman went on alert at Montana's Malmstrom Air Force Base on Oct. 27, 1962 -- the day Cuba shot down a U-2 spy plane at the height of the Cuban missile crisis -- the missile has "talked" to its operators through thousands of miles of hard-wiring in cables buried underground.

Those Hardened Intersite Cable Systems, or HICS, cables carry messages back and forth from the missile to the missileer, who receives those messages through a relatively new part of the capsule -- a firing control console called REACT, for Rapid Execution and Combat Targeting, that was installed in the mid-1990s.

It's a closed communication loop, and a very secure one that brings its own headaches. Any time the Air Force wants to test one of the missiles, it literally has to dig up the cables and splice them, to isolate that test missile's wiring from the rest. Over decades of testing, there are now hundreds of splices in those critical loops.

But it's also one of the Minuteman's best features. You would need a shovel -- and a lot more -- to try to hack the system. Even when missile crews update targeting codes, it is a mechanical, manual process.

Minuteman is "a very cyber-resilient platform," said Col. Charles Clegg, the Sentinel system program manager.

photo In this Oct. 19, 2018, photo provided by the U.S. Air Force, one of the multiple launch switches sits in the upper-left portion of a panel at a missile alert facility launch control center operated by the 320th Missile Squadron at F.E. Warren Air Force Base, Wyo. The control panel that would be used in case of a silo-based nuclear missile launch is still very much reflective of the 1960s and 1980s technology it still relies on. It will all be overhauled with the arrival of the new Sentinel system, but some caution that its dependence on old technology is what keeps it protected from cyber warfare. (Staff Sgt. Neal Uranga/U.S. Air Force via AP)
photo This August 2023 photo provided by the U.S. Air Force shows one of the seafoam green control panels inside an underground launch control capsule at F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming. (Joseph Coslett Jr./U.S. Air Force via AP)
photo This image provided by the U.S. Air Force shows the original underground launch capsules where missileers still spend 24 to 48 hours sitting alert duty. From these underground capsules the launch officers can monitor the silo-based Minuteman III missiles or could fire them if the president ordered a launch. The capsules were dug in the 1960s and have not changed much since then. All of the launch control centers will be demolished and new centers will be built as part of the new Sentinel intercontinental ballistic missile system. Construction work on the new system could start as early as next year. (U.S. Air Force via AP)
photo In this undated image provided by the Department of Defense, crews construct missile site connections in the 12th Missile Squadron flight area north of Great Falls, Mont. The 12th MS is one of four missile squadrons in the 341st Operations Group of the 341st Space Wing. (Department of Defense via AP)