US nuclear weapons are rapidly aging. Since there are few spare parts, how long do you have?


When hundreds of land-based nuclear-armed ballistic missiles were first dropped into underground cement silos in the vast cornfields here in 1970, the weapons were intended to last only 10 years before the new system emerged. I didn’t.

Fifty years later, these missiles — — Called Minutemen III — — By members of the U.S. Air Force, a team of two, spent 24 hours underground in front of analog terminals since the 1980s, decoding messages, and running tests on the missile system to see if the missile can still be launched I’m on the alert. If necessary.

But it’s not the weapons era or the technology decades ago that plagues operators. The original manufacturers that supplied gears, tubes and other materials to secure these systems have long disappeared.

A few years ago, a motor in one of the industrial-sized caged elevators, which slowly descended 100 feet underground to the launch control center, broke, an Air Force soldier from the base’s 791th Conservative Squadron told McClatchy. .. The fix wasn’t available for several months.

Instead, the maintainers relied on equipping pulleys to reduce supply for the crew, the Air Force said, provided they were not named.

“We are tightly constrained by spares,” said the Air Force. “Technology plays that role. The challenge is to maintain it.”

To make repairs, aviation personnel are often forced to take parts from another machine. Two Minot aviation personnel told McClutch that the facility’s missile guidance system often requires parts and attention due to constant wear.

Lieutenant Colonel Steve Bonin, commander of Minot’s 91st Operation Support Squadron, said:

Price for modernization

Next month, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mark Milley and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin will ask for billions of dollars to keep the land missiles in operation 50 years ago and discuss whether they should be replaced. It begins.

That’s a difficult question: at the same time, the Pentagon is also in the midst of the most expensive nuclear modernization efforts in its history.

All three legs of the nuclear triad — — Air defense, land and sea defense launched from silos, overhead strategic bombers, or nuclear submarines — — At the same time, it has been replaced by a new weapon system.

Next-generation replacement bombers, missiles, and submarines currently under development are priced at over $ 400 billion and will be held at a hearing next month to discuss whether lawmakers need to modernize all three tripods. Expected to be the main question.

“In my humble opinion, we are making more weapons than we need,” Democratic Party Chairman Adam Smith said in a December discussion at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “We need to look at ways to be more cost-effective and have strong deterrents, and that’s what we’re aiming for.”

Kansas City Complex

Due to the high cost of developing brand new weapons, military defaults have often kept existing nuclear missiles running for several more years.

All nuclear missile or bomb repair and life extension work is handled at several offsite locations throughout the United States. All non-nuclear parts of the warhead rely on one of the Kansas City National Security Agency of the Department of Energy. campus.

“There is no backup location,” said Lisa Gordon Hagerty, a former director of the National Nuclear Security Administration of the Department of Energy, who is responsible for maintaining the country’s nuclear stockpiles. That means there’s no quick way to get a spare in an emergency, she added.

In Kansas City, the non-nuclear parts of weapons are tightly controlled, as counterfeit products can be costly to slip through.

Counterfeit products, even simple parts such as wiring, that are set to deteriorate faster can effectively disable missiles without the crew noticing the damage, Gordon Hagerty said. Stated.

Non-nuclear components produced at the Kansas City facility range from basic items such as wiring and bolts to complex items such as weapon launch systems. According to the US Government Accountability Office, these make up more than 80 percent of each weapon.

As missiles age, they need more work.

Last year, GAO reported that the Kansas site needed to be expanded to meet the level of repairs currently needed.

“The workload at the Kansas City site is increasing and is now at its highest level since the end of the Cold War,” said GAO.

Authorities warned that supply chain issues and lack of floor space at the Kansas City site could impede future plans to replace parts and extend the life of the weapon.

Millie’s message

Navy Admiral Charles Richard, head of the United States Strategic Command, wonders how many missile life extensions remain.

“When I say heroic, I’m talking about people doing some very innovative things to reverse engineer and creatively replace parts and the like.” Richards said.

He added that another extension of service life is “certainly cost-effective and is approaching the point where it cannot be done at all.”

Millie went to Minot to prepare for an upcoming parliamentary hearing on the defense budget.

He climbed inside the B-52 Stratofortress, which has been flying since 1960, and talked to the crew asking which upgrades would help their mission. The UH-1N Huey, which carried him to the missile silo, has been in use since 1969. The deep underground wall of the Launch Control Center, which he signed when he departed, was built around 1962.

“We are moving towards the end of the engineering life of these systems,” Millie said. I think that nuclear deterrence and strategic deterrence have been effective in preventing the Great Power War for 70 years since the end of World War II.And until then, unless there’s something better, I think we need to update and modernize what we have... ”

When he left the launch facility, Millie took a marker to write a message on the missile silo. Near the exit, the crew who finished the tour and the crew who visited the defense leader also wrote down notes.

“Every day, no nuclear war you have won,” Millie writes.

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