Rule Five Nuclear Deterrent News

America’s nuclear arsenal is considerable, but parts of it are also pretty old.  Our silo-launched missiles are old, and so our their Cold-War era control systems.

But we may be seeing some upgrades, both in the birds and in their controls.

The control stations for America’s nuclear intercontinental ballistic missiles have a sort of 1980s retro look, with computing panels in sea foam green, bad lighting and chunky control switches, including a critical one that says “launch.”

Those underground capsules are about to be demolished and the missile silos they control will be completely overhauled. A new nuclear missile is coming, a gigantic ICBM called the Sentinel. It’s the largest cultural shift in the land leg of the Air Force’s nuclear missile mission in 60 years.

But there are questions as to whether some of the Cold War-era aspects of the Minuteman missiles that the Sentinel will replace should be changed.

Making the silo-launched missile more modern, with complex software and 21st-century connectivity across a vast network, may also mean it’s more vulnerable. The Sentinel will need to be well protected from cyberattacks, while its technology will have to cope with frigid winter temperatures in the Western states where the silos are located.

That’s a fair point. Because the current control systems are old, they are also secure, connected by cable, and air-gapped away from any possible interference. But old, yes, and that presents its own problems.

For the Pentagon, there are expectations the modern Sentinel will meet threats from rapidly evolving Chinese and Russian missile systems. The Sentinel is expected to stay in service through 2075, so designers are taking an approach that will make it easier to upgrade with new technologies in the coming years. But that’s not without risk.

“Sentinel is a software-intensive program with a compressed schedule,” the Government Accountability Office reported this summer. “Software development is a high risk due to its scale and complexity and unique requirements of the nuclear deterrence mission.”

Security is always the key in these sorts of things, and that’s where cables and air gaps are essential. Imagine the horrific consequences were someone able to hack the United States’ strategic missile systems; silly ’80s movies aside, that could enable someone to actually initiate a global nuclear war.

Of course, they’d have to get by the Air Force as well, who not only man those siloes but who also have to manually initiate launches.

“Today, everything is connected to the internet of things. And you might have a back door in there you don’t even know” said Lt. Col. Todd Yehle, the 741st maintenance squadron commander. “With the old analog systems, you’re not hacking those systems.”

What it means is that even though technology could automate the whole operations process, one critical aspect of missile launch will remain the same. If the day comes that another nuclear weapon must be fired, it will still be teams of missileers validating the orders and activating a launch.

“It’s the human in the loop,” said Col. Johnny Galbert, commander of the 90th Missile Wing at F.E. Warren. “I think what it comes down to is we want to rely on our airmen, our young officers out there, to make that decision, to be able to interpret what higher headquarters is telling them or directing them to do.”

You always need people in the loop for something like this.

That’s why movies like War Games and Terminator, fun though they may be, are essentially bullshit.  The launch of nuclear missiles has to not only be approved by the National Command Authority (a rather terrifying thought given the fecklessness and senility in NCA at the moment) but also must be, in effect, approved by the Air Force officers and NCOs on the scene.

These missiles won’t fly until people turn the keys. That’s a pretty good safeguard.

If we’re going to keep weapons like this, it’s certainly best to make sure they’ll work as intended. Sometimes that means a ground-up replacement for older systems. National defense is, after all, one of the few legitimate purposes of our Imperial government, and if the thing were to be done, t’were best done quickly.