As it holds out hope for a role on the next generation of U.S. nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles, Boeing [BA] Defense, Space and Security continues modernizing parts of the existing fleet, including by adding the ability to remotely update launch codes at all 450 missile silos.
The maker of the current fleet of Minuteman III missiles, which last year exited the Air Force competition to build replacement Ground Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD) missiles, this year started manufacturing new cryptography hardware for Minuteman launch silos in Colorado, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, and Wyoming. By 2023, the company plans to deliver the last of the units to the Air Force, said Ted Kerzie, Boeing’s director of Strategic Deterrent Systems.
“Currently, what the Air Force has to do is they go out each year and do manual code or cryptography changes every year,” Kerzie said Tuesday in an interview with Defense Daily. “So you can envision the number of hours and manpower needed to go visit 450 remote sites.”
Boeing is building the cryptographic hardware under a fixed-price Air Force contract definitized in 2019. Work started in 2018 under a letter contract with the Air Force Nuclear Weapons Center. The service definitized the deal in 2019, and the pact is now worth up to $124 million through August 2023.
The Air Force should begin deploying the new cryptography hardware, which is connected by wire to classified information systems that don’t touch the internet or wireless networks, by the end of December. Boeing is already assembling the units at its facility in Heath, Ohio.
“Our first deliveries should be toward the end of the year,” Kerzie said
Boeing is making the new units for the Air Force’s ICBM Cryptography Upgrade Program, Increment 2. Increment 1, from design to deployment, ran from 2004 through 2010, the company said.
The Increment 2 cryptography units entered the engineering, development and manufacturing stage of their development in fiscal year 2013, according to Air Force budget documents. If installed by 2023, that would make them the product of a decade’s worth of work by the Minuteman III incumbent, which last year shook industry watchers when it apparently ceded the prime contract to build and deploy GBSD to rival Northrop Grumman [NOC].
The Air Force plans to start replacing Minuteman III missiles with GBSD missiles around 2029. The new missiles will drop into the old silos. Asked whether the new cryptography hardware might be compatible with GBSD, Kerzie deferred to the Air Force’s GBSD program office.
Boeing, a mainstay of U.S. nuclear forces since the beginning of the triad as the world knows it, has fewer and fewer footholds at U.S. Strategic Command these days. Kerzie, however, sees possibilities in the next generation of delivery platforms and carrier vehicles, which will deploy in the next 10 to 15 years.
The company made the Electrostatically Supported Gyro Navigator that helps guide the Ohio-class ballistic missile submarine that launches the Trident II D5 missile. Kerzie said the units could be a fit even for the future submarines like the Columbia-class submarines that will replace the Ohio boats starting in the early 2030s.
Boeing also remains the go-to for one of the main components of the nuclear triad’s air-leg: the AGM-86b Air Launched Cruise Missiles with W80-1 nuclear warheads. Until those Boeing-built missiles are replaced with Raytheon Technologies [RTX]-made Long Range Standoff weapon missiles in the early 2030s, Boeing personnel will continue logging hours with the upkeep of the AGM-86b missiles, including at the Guidance Repair Center in Heath.
And, of course, Boeing maintains that it still has something to offer GBSD.
Exactly what that is Kerzie would not say, though he touted Boeing’s expertise with intercontinental ballistic missile guidance systems, honed since the early days of the Minuteman program in the 1960s. The Air Force has said Boeing might find work on future GBSD modernization and maintenance programs, similar to how Northrop had a major role on last decade’s Minuteman III refurbishment. That program and others ensured the missiles can last until GBSD completely replaces them in the mid-2030s.
The first GBSD missiles could go into the ground with W87-0 warheads now used on deployed Minuteman III missiles, Charles Verdon, deputy administrator for defense programs at the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) told Defense Daily earlier this year.
Eventually, the GBSD fleet will use a mixture of W87-0 and W87-1 warheads, all made by the NNSA. W87-1 warheads will have brand new plutonium pit cores, which the NNSA will initially cast at the Plutonium Facility at New Mexico’s Los Alamos National Laboratory. The civilian agency, even amid the COVID-19 pandemic, is working to expand the Plutonium Facility so that it can cast 10 war-ready pits by fiscal year 2024.
Editor’s note, 06/12/2020, 10:43 a.m. Eastern. The story was updated with the correct timeline for Boeing’s cryptography unit production contract.
Editor’s note, 06/10/2020, 8:20 a.m. Eastern. The story was corrected to show that the Electrostatically Supported Gyro Navigator helps guide submarines.