Strategic Weapons: September 4, 2001


The U.S. Air Force is in the midst of a $4.5 billion program to upgrade 500 Minuteman III missiles so they can stay in service until 2020. Each missile will have it's solid fuel replaced (at a cost of $5.2 million per missile) and guidance system upgraded ($3.8 million each.) Some $600 million also went to upgrading the computers and equipment in the control rooms from which the missiles are launched. About three dozen missiles have already been upgraded, a process that will take until 2008 to do all 500. However, six test flights have shown that the new and improved missiles are less accurate and have shorter range than the missiles they replaced. The air force admits there is a problem and is looking into a solution. ICBMs have always been complex and unpredictable beasts. In the past, poor test procedures allowed problems to remain undetected for years. So one can take comfort that at least the problem was caught early this time. The problems, however, appear to be self inflicted. The accuracy problem appears to arise from the decision to keep the 1960s era inertial measurement and just replace the electronics that worked with it. The air force says a software change can fix the accuracy problem. The shorter range can be attributed to Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations. The old motors did not have to comply with EPA rules, the replacement ones do. This meant the new rocket motors were heavier, which resulted in shorter range. The older Minuteman III motors provided a max range of 9,600 kilometers. Actually, that's an estimate, as the actual range is classified, as is the new, shorter, one. In any event, it's probably much ado about nothing. Losing ten percent of its range won't change anything and, unless the US government is secretly planning to take out Russian missile silos (most Chinese ICBMs are still unprotected), the loss of accuracy is meaningless as well.


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