The conversion of 450 LGM-30 Minuteman III ICBM silos to accomodate the Northrop Grumman [NOC] LGM-35A Sentinel is to draw lessons from recent work done by the Northrop Grumman team in Utah.

Parsons Corp. [PSN], an original designer of the Minuteman silos, is a subcontractor to Northrop Grumman on the conversion of the Minuteman III silos for the Sentinel program.

“Out in Promontory, Utah, about a year and a half, almost two years ago, there was a Minuteman III launch facility that was built from the ground up,” Air Force Maj. Gen. Michael Lutton, the commander of Twentieth Air Force, told a Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies’ virtual forum on Jan. 24. “The [Northrop Grumman] contract team has taken that Minuteman III launch facility that they built and used it to experiment with how they are going to convert the existing launch facilities out in the missile complex. I think that is an effort that will put some time back on the clock.”

Northrop Grumman said that one of its heritage companies, Thiokol, bought swathes of land near Promontory in 1956-57 to build static test solid-fuel rocket motors. Thiokol conducted the first static test fire of a Minuteman I stage in 1957.

Lutton said that the Air Force will decentralize Sentinel maintenance in the missile fields as opposed to the main base-focused sustainment of Minuteman III.

“I would anticipate an effort where you’ll have smaller, logistics sustainment hubs forward out in the [missile] complex so you cut down the amount of time the contractors are transiting back and forth from a main base, like an F.E. Warren, to western Nebraska, or northern Colorado, or eastern Montana,” Lutton said. “Those little efficiencies, I think, are critical when you look at the macro scale.”

F.E. Warren AFB, Wyo., is to be the first recipient of Sentinel by the end of the decade.

Lutton said that the Air Force is examining parts/system compatibility between the Minuteman III and Sentinel systems.

“If there’s a [Minuteman III] piece, let’s say, that is not forward compatible with Sentinel, there will be a team discussion/team decision to put that non-forward compatible system at Minot [AFB, N.D.] or Malmstrom [AFB, Mont.],” he said. “That is gonna get more longevity out of that system. It’s a better investment for our taxpayers, and, quite honestly, its gonna allow us to save that system at Minot or Malmstrom a little longer.”

Air Force Lt. Gen. James Dawkins, deputy chief of staff for strategic deterrence and nuclear integration, told the Mitchell forum on Jan. 24 that the Minuteman III-Sentinel silo conversion work will be extensive.

“It’s a scale that we’ve not seen in decades,” he said. “When you look back at when Minuteman was put in the ground, we had empty fields…Now we’re having to go to those sites that already have equipment in them, decommission them, dig some of it away, destroy some of the facilities, and then put new facilities where those old facilities were. So, this is the challenge. We’re going to do one [silo] per week for 9 years–is what the average is. That’s quite a big level of work, and when I talk about workers and concrete, reinforcement bar, and welders, all those things, it’s a major undertaking that we’ve not seen in over 50 or 60 years.”

Of the 450 Minuteman III silos assigned to F.E. Warren AFB, Minot AFB, N.D., and Malmstrom AFB, Mont., 50 are empty but are kept ready to receive missiles, if needed.

A number of nuclear issues concern Pentagon and National Nuclear Security Administration officials, such as the three-decade old lag in producing plutonium pits in the U.S., training pilots for the B-21 Raider, and the need for U.S. Strategic Command to modernize the architecture of 220 aging, nuclear, command and control, and communications systems–80 percent of which the Air Force owns, and the remainder of which come under the Defense Information Systems Agency and the U.S. Navy.

Dawkins said that his focus, however, is not a technological one, but more pedestrian.

“We’re coming out of COVID. We’ve had several challenges there. Some of those are supply chain so the DIB [the defense industrial base] is really gonna have to monitor the supply chain and the hiring that’s gonna be needed to do this modernization,” Dawkins said. “Believe it or not, what I worry about most–more than technology–is concrete and rebar–reinforcement steel that goes in the concrete–to build the 650 construction projects that we have, not just in the missile fields but across the nuclear enterprise. It has to be built in the next 12 years over 13 states. We need welders and pipefitters and electricians, all those types of folks to do this body of work…The solution for that [undertaking] is just gonna be a whole of government push.”