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Nov. 17, 2009—Air Force Gen. Kevin Chilton, US Strategic Command boss, says he hasn’t seen anything indicating that the Minuteman III missile cannot serve as a leg of the nation's nuclear deterrent until 2030 as Congress has mandated.

In discussions with the Air Force's Minuteman overseers, "their view is that, with the appropriate investment, they can extend the life out to 2030," Chilton said Nov. 10 on Capitol Hill. "Most of the investment," he continued, "is not actually in the missile itself, but it is in supporting infrastructure," like aging test equipment.

Chilton said the Air Force is making those investments, leading him to have a "high" degree of confidence in the Minuteman's long-term viability. However, he added, "I don't think it is too early in the next year or two to begin thinking about" whether there will be a Minuteman follow-on and what it would look like."

The Air Force has already pumped more than $7 billion to upgrade the Minutemen III force so that it remains viable out to 2020. Examples include updated guidance and propulsion. But subsequent to the development of that modernization plan, the Congress mandated that the service keep the missile fleet out to 2030.

The Minuteman III inventory is currently 450 operational missiles, plus test assets. It remains unclear whether the fleet size will be reduced as part of the arms control treaty that the United States and Russia are negotiating.

Chilton said there are enough test assets to keep conducting Minuteman flight tests out to 2030 to help discover any issues that could impact the missile's performance or reliability.

And earlier this year, the Air Force took another step to bolster Minuteman stewardship by publishing an ICBM systems roadmap to plot the path for sustaining the missile. It's the first time in a decade and a half that the Air Force has done this, said Brig. Gen. Everett Thomas, commander of the Air Force Nuclear Weapons Center, during an interview in mid-September.

The roadmap is part of a broader effort to consolidate all of the information on the Air Force's nuclear-related sustainment and modernization efforts in a master document to provide greater transparency for the service leadership that nuclear requirements are being properly addressed.

The roadmap will be continually refined. Thomas said the first iteration "is about 70 percent correct" since the service is still reconstituting its expertise in estimating costs from a system-of-systems perspective when looking ahead many years.

It includes a forecast of the industrial base to help identify components that might need replacing due to issues like parts obsolescence, he said.

"Today, we are getting everything we need," said Thomas of the industrial base. But the service has already determined that it will have to replace some components at some point like the missile's gyroscopic accelerometer due to looming obsolescence issues, he said. The accelerometer keeps the Minuteman III properly aligned both in the silo and in flight.

(For more, read "Nuclear Forces: Lots of Progress, But a Long Way To Go," a sidebar accompanying the article The 'Balanced' Air Force from the November 2009 issue of Air Force Magazine.)

(For more from Chilton's Nov. 10 speech, see Back to Work and Thinking Comprehensively as well as The Triad's Fourth Leg.)