In use for decades – now in need of modernisation - the technology enables air-launched intercontinental ballistic missiles strikes to take place.
USAF Global Strike Command announced the contracts in early October 2017. Each one, worth $81m, runs for three years.
News of the USAF’s ICBM launch system upgrade comes as North Korea continues its own serial missile/rocket work.
Airborne Launch Control System
Lockheed Martin Space Systems’ and Rockwell Collins' contract wins kickstart this programme’s next phase: the design element.
"We are developing a modular system that can be easily upgraded to address new technologies and threats as they emerge”, explains Air Force Nuclear Weapons Center commander, Major General Scott Jansson.
"The Airborne Launch Control System [ALCS] provides the strategic capability of survivable airborne command and control for the Air Force's fleet of ICBMs", adds the centre’s ICBM Systems director, Colonel Scott Jones. "The new system will be a timely replacement of the legacy system and provide continued ICBM airborne command-and-control capability through 2075."
The ALCS is integrated into the US Navy’s E-6B Mercury command and control aircraft. It’s an alternative Minuteman III ICBM launch option, in the event that conventional ground launch infrastructure is rendered unusable.
The E-6 Mercury airborne command and control post was developed from the Boeing 707-320 commercial airliner. It entered service in 1987 and has since been upgraded, with new mission systems, to the E-6B standard. Equipping the US Navy's VQ-3 and VQ-4 squadrons, the type is stationed at Tinker AFB.
Introduced in 1970, the Minuteman III is one part of the US military’s nuclear triad, alongside its Trident SLBMs (Submarine-Launched Ballistic Missiles) and B-2A Spirit/B-52H Stratofortress-carried air-launched nuclear weapons. Designated LGM-30G (‘L’ indicating it’s silo-launched, ‘G’ for surface attack and ‘M’ classifying it as guided), the missile has a 6,000-plus mile range and travels at approximately 15,000 miles per hour – Mach 23. 450 examples are in service. They’re operated by three wings located at Minot, Malmstrom and Warren Air Force bases.
The USAF hopes to have its new-gen Airborne Launch Control System operational by the mid-2020s.
Main image caption: ‘An unarmed Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile launches during an operational test at 1203 am, PDT, April 26, from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. (US Air Force photo by Senior Airman Ian Dudley)
First text-embedded image caption: ‘US Air Force Capt. Greg Carter, a deputy missile combat crew commander-airborne from the 625th Strategic Operations Squadron, launches a simulated Minuteman III missile aboard a U.S. Navy E-6B Mercury during Glory Trip 220 above the Pacific Ocean, April 25, 2017. Glory Trip is an operational test launch which continues a long history of launches from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., used to verify, validate and improve the capability of the nation’s ICBM force. (US Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Keifer Bowes)
Second text-embedded image, depicting Boeing E-6B Mercury, ‘US Navy photo/released’ – courtesy Wikimedia Commons