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  • The E-6B Mercury has been dubbed the most dangerous aircraft in the world because of its capability to command and control nuclear intercontinental ballistic missiles. The next-generation Airborne Launch Control System will be capable of launching both Minuteman III and Ground-Based Deterrence System missiles. Credit: Josh Plueger
     The E-6B Mercury has been dubbed the most dangerous aircraft in the world because of its capability to command and control nuclear intercontinental ballistic missiles. The next-generation Airborne Launch Control System will be capable of launching both Minuteman III and Ground-Based Deterrence System missiles. Credit: Josh Plueger
  • An unarmed Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile launches during an operational test from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. The Air Force is developing a new Airborne Launch Control System that will use modernized communications and electronics technology. Credit: Senior Airman Ian Dudley, USAF
     An unarmed Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile launches during an operational test from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. The Air Force is developing a new Airborne Launch Control System that will use modernized communications and electronics technology. Credit: Senior Airman Ian Dudley, USAF

Modernizing the Airborne Nuclear Launch System

The Cyber Edge
March 1, 2018
By George I. Seffers
E-mail About the Author

Cutting-edge capabilities will replace decades-old technology.


The next-generation airborne missile control system being developed by the U.S. Air Force will take advantage of modern communications and electronics systems such as software-defined radios to provide a number of capabilities, including improved cybersecurity.

The Airborne Launch Control System (ALCS) on the Navy’s E-6B Mercury aircraft provides command and control for Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) in case the ground-based command and control systems cannot perform their mission—if they are attacked, for example. When the aircraft communications systems receive launch orders from the command authorities, those messages are passed to and authenticated by the ALCS. The system then transmits those commands to the launch facilities.

“If communications with one of the launch control centers is lost, then the launch facility goes into a mode where it uses its radios to listen for commands from the ALCS. The assumption is that something has happened to the launch control center,” explains Col. Eric Felt, USAF, chief of the ICBM Joint Mission Division. “We, therefore, need to make sure we have the command and control of the system, so we’re going to turn to the ALCS.”

Col. Felt emphasizes that the system’s primary benefit is to act as a day-to-day deterrent against adversaries launching an attack against the U.S. nuclear arsenal. “The whole point of the ALCS system is to enhance deterrence by making sure our adversaries never contemplate a first strike against the United States. If they wanted to think about that, they would have to target and take out 450 of our launch facilities rather than just the 45 launch control stations, so it changes the calculus of deterrence in our enemy’s mind,” he says.

The colonel offers that the system needed to be replaced to eliminate obsolete equipment and to prepare for the Minuteman III successor known as the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD). The ALCS was first fielded in the 1960s and last overhauled in the 1980s, which means that components in the aircraft and on the ground have to be modernized. “It’s a complete replacement of the current Airborne Launch Control System. We have many obsolete components on the current system that just cannot be supported anymore. When we run out of spares, they can’t be repaired, and it’s not cost-effective to reverse-engineer them,” Col. Felt says.

Communications equipment from the 1960s, or even 1980s, is light-years behind modern systems. Today’s technology includes, for example, software-defined radios, advanced waveforms and enhanced encryption. “Those technologies, when we incorporate them into the system, will help improve our cybersecurity and our encryption and could lead to some improved flexibility for our users,” Col. Felt says. “The security and encryption updates will let us keep the systems viable up to 2075.”

However, potential benefits still are being analyzed. “We’re studying right now what capabilities those technologies are going to be able to deliver as part of this upgrade. We’re working with Strategic Command and Global Strike Command to determine how they want to use those capabilities to improve their concepts of operations and their flexibility as they use the system,” the colonel reports. “That new technology has all kinds of potential that we will be exploring over the next couple of years.”

An additional benefit is that the technology already is mature. “We don’t think there are any significant technology development challenges. The current state of the electronics and the radios are more than enough to meet our needs, so we’re going to use mature technologies to eliminate risk. We just don’t need to be pushing that envelope,” he says.

Modern technology also allows modularity, so the system can be built with the flexibility it will need to command and control the Minuteman IIIs and the future GBSD system. The Air Force will define the GBSD architecture over the next three years. “But, by the way, we’re not waiting for that. We’re starting right now to design in flexibility and modularity so that whatever they end up designing, we’ll be able to integrate with it,” Col. Felt offers.

He points out that the ALCS has had dual capabilities in the past. It was once used to command and control Minuteman IIIs and Peacekeeper missiles. But now the need to develop a command and control system for the GBSD, which does not yet exist, presents a challenge. “For the next 20 years, we’re going to be transitioning from Minuteman III to GBSD. We have to provide our nation with full assured deterrence during that whole time,” the colonel states. He adds that transitioning some of the launch facilities to the new weapon system as the ALCS is being deployed poses both design and logistics concerns.

Despite the 1980s upgrade, some original components may remain. Some of the original antennas may not need to be replaced at all. “We have a buried antenna at each launch facility. It’s buried so that it’s survivable. We recently completed a study that showed that they’re actually in great shape,” Col. Felt reports. “They were really well-designed back in the ’60s, and they are still usable, we have concluded, if that’s the capability we decide we need on the future system.”

A lack of documentation for the original 1967 design introduces yet another challenge. “They did a great job with their system engineering, but they didn’t always document everything, and we certainly don’t still have all of those documents. With the Minuteman III, it’s hard to make sure we have compatibility when we don’t have a full set of design documents,” he says.

The ALCS program office at Hill Air Force Base, Utah, issued three-year contracts last year to Lockheed Martin Space Systems, Littleton, Colorado, and Rockwell Collins, Cedar Rapids, Iowa, for about $81 million and $76 million, respectively. The awards kicked off a design competition for upgrading the system. Additionally, in October, the Air Force awarded Boeing $349 million and Northrop Grumman $328 million to continue developing the GBSD.

The ALCS program team has built a system integration laboratory at Hill Air Force Base that will be used to test the vendors’ prototype hardware in two years. It will allow for testing in simulated and challenging scenarios, such as a nuclear attack. The results of that testing will help inform contractor selection for the engineering, manufacturing and development phase.

ALCS program officials also have been toiling at a cost capability analysis needed by the Air Force Requirements Oversight Council. That effort was expected to be finalized in January and will help determine the system’s technology requirements.

Col. Felt suggests that one of the biggest challenges will be living up to the legacy of those who designed the original system roughly 50 years ago. “I am continually impressed the more I look into the design of these ICBM systems that was done back there in the ’60s. What a good job they did with systems engineering, with really thinking about how to design the system and thinking through all the contingencies. That’s the reason the system is still working so well today,” he says. “One of the challenges I’ve given my team is to live up to that and design a system right now that can last for the next 50 years.”

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Great story. I was Combat Ready in ALCS in 1969 at Minot AFB and opened the 4th ACCS at Ellsworth AFB. Then there was a great desire for an upgrade to the system to provide uplink from the ground and remote retargeting (SAC ROC 21-72 R). That happened with Peacekeeper but only for those sites. I worked with NSA and the AF Crypto folks to get the secure code storage a bit more reliable and that was done in the 1980s as well. No more broken glass. I am delighted to see the system back in the spotlight for the MM III replacement. It does make me sad to think of how our EC-135s and even E-4B were just as capable, as E-6, and a long gone.

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