AF Minuteman missiles undergo booster upgrades

by Capt. Richard Essary
341st Space Wing Public Affairs

04/23/01 - MALMSTROM AIR FORCE BASE, Mont. (AFPN) - A new Minuteman III was installed recently at launch facility Hotel-02 in Malmstrom's missile complex. The new system was a result of the Propulsion Replacement Program which provides replacements for all three of the solid propellant booster stages that make up the Minuteman III.

Malmstrom is home to America's "Ace in the Hole." That is what President John F. Kennedy told Soviet Union Premier Nikita Krushchev and the entire world during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

That same week, on Oct. 26, 1962, the first Minuteman missile went on alert here at launch facility Alpha-06. Nearly 40 years later, Air Force acquisition programs keep the missiles current, playing a vital role in the modernization of the Minuteman III, an upgraded version of the original weapon system.

The Minuteman III solid rocket boosters were first deployed in the early 1970s, and the missiles have received new propellant several times since then.

During the late 1980s and early 1990s, new propellant was poured into stages two and three of the weapon system, according to Maj. Todd Johnston, PRP acquisition manager. However, this is the first time propellant was replaced in all three stages at the same time.

"As the solid propellant ages (inside the boosters), it dries out and shrinks," said Col. Jack Anderson, 341st Logistics Group commander. "Eventually it pulls away from the liner of the booster and leaves air spaces or gaps. It can also crack as it dries and cause even more gaps. All of these gaps impact the way the fuel burns and can substantially reduce the efficiency and reliability of the burn."

"What makes the Propulsion Replacement Program unique is that we are taking hardware that is over 30 years old and extending the life of that weapons system," Johnston said. "It's a good deal for the warfighter and a good deal for the taxpayer."

The acquisition cost of this program is approximately $1.8 billion for 607 boosters. The program will last through 2008, and the installment of these new stages is part of the Air Force's overall effort to extend the life of the Minuteman III weapon system beyond 2020.

Since the acquisition program began in 1994, it has undergone extensive testing. Before the boosters even arrived here, a team of Malmstrom evaluators traveled to Hill Air Force Base, Utah, to perform a final inspection on the boosters prior to their shipment. During the inspection, the Malmstrom team discussed with depot engineers all the changes to the boosters and ensured those improvements matched the procedural changes to the technical data. This trip by the evaluators helped ensure a seamless transition from the old to the new boosters.

Staff Sgt. Aaron Wilson, 341st Logistics Support Squadron missile handling quality assurance evaluator, was impressed with the refurbished weapon system, and the inspection team did not find any deficiencies in the boosters.

"The many years spent perfecting the refurbishment process really showed - it looked brand new," Wilson said.

"Sustainment is an on-going requirement to keep our weapon systems operating safely, securely and effectively throughout their life," Anderson said. "Many systems prove they are capable of lasting much longer than originally planned."

"Keep in mind that to sustain the Minuteman III fleet, you have to also sustain all of the associated support hardware, facilities, equipment and vehicles. There will be sustainment programs as long as Minuteman III is on alert," he said.

Malmstrom is the first unit to receive the new boosters. The other Minuteman units, F.E. Warren AFB, Wyo. and Minot AFB, N.D., begin receiving their new boosters later this year. (Courtesy of Air Force Space Command News Service)