Boeing to Compete for Minuteman III Technology Refresh Contract

By Stew Magnuson
The launch of an unarmed Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — The Boeing Co., after 51 uninterrupted years of building and maintaining the U.S. Air Force's stock of land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles, will be in a competition with industry rivals to swap out key Minuteman III components, company executives said April 12.

Boeing will be competing against defense industry giants Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman for a downselect that will whittle down to two companies that will be picked to participate in a technology maturation and risk reduction phase, Alex Lopez, vice president for global sales and marketing for Boeing's network and space systems, said in a press briefing at the Space Symposium.

The Air Force has committed to replacing the flight systems on the missiles and the ground-based command-and-control systems, as well as cybersecurity upgrades, he said. "We have been in an unbroken partnership with the Air Force on this program for 50 plus years and we look forward to the opportunity to extend that well into the future," he said.

The Air Force pre-selected the three major contractors to compete for the technology maturation phase, he said. It is expected to choose the two companies that will proceed with the program later this year. The technology maturation/risk reduction phase will last about three years. At that point, the competition will be opened up again, although the two selected companies will probably have an advantage over the company left out of the program, he said.

The Air Force will begin to refresh the technologies in the 2020 timeframe, Lopez said.

Craig Cooning, president of Network and Space Systems at Boeing, said that, with the long-range bomber under development and recent upgrades for the sea-based Trident missile program, Minuteman III would be the oldest part of the nuclear triad without upgrades.

"Maintainability is a big deal," said Cooning. If one fix to an antiquated system costs $1 million per missile, that begins to add up with some 450 Minuteman IIIs in the arsenal.

The Air Force in its studies has concluded that these technology refreshes will cost less than simply trying to maintain some of the 1970s subsystems, said Lopez. Cooning added: "Lowering those [operations and maintenance] costs overall is going to be vital to the future of this program."

There have been some upgrades to the missiles since the 1970s, but other components have not been touched. "If you look at the launch control centers, it's like going back in time literally 50 years," Cooning said.

Lopez said the key will be making a new architecture that is "flexible, effective and affordable."

Meanwhile, Cooning said Boeing is waiting for Air Force guidance and further funding before the United Launch Alliance goes all-in on its new Vulcan family of rockets. Boeing and Lockheed Martin are partners in the United Launch Alliance, and Cooning sits on its board of directors. 

ULA will continue to take a cautious investment approach in the Vulcan program until the Air Force releases an overall acquisition strategy. So far, it has funded an effort to replace the Russian-made RD-180 rocket engine. ULA is considering using the Aerojet Rocketdyne AR-1 or the BE-4, being developed by Blue Origin.  The Air Force is working on such a plan, he said.

"A rocket engine does not make a rocket," he said. Once the new engine is developed, there is a lot of work left to integrate it into the rocket, he said.

Photo: Boeing

Topics: Armaments, Ballistics

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