Missile wings conduct remote code change with ICU II

  • Published
  • By Glenn S. Robertson
  • 20th Air Force

The missile wings of the 20th Air Force are changing their procedures on how nuclear code change operations are done, with each wing having switched one squadron’s area of responsibility to the new Intercontinental Ballistic Missile Cryptography Upgrade program.

It is a change that promises to save the Air Force considerable resources in labor hours, cash, and the wear and tear on vehicles.

"Code change has typically included hundreds of defenders, maintainers and missileers working five or more 14-hour days, and that's just at one wing," said Maj. Gen. Michael Lutton, 20th AF commander. "With the new procedure for conducting code change, it now takes two missileers a single, eight-hour alert; saving each wing thousands of miles of road time, as well as the fuel and labor hours that go with that. This innovation will improve the quality of life of our Airmen while saving [the Air Force] millions of dollars."

Code change is an annual requirement that typically takes three weeks to complete for each wing, at about five days for each missile squadron’s AOR. In those three weeks, missileers, maintainers and security forces drive thousands of miles and work thousands of hours to change the codes required for the launch of a wing’s ICBMs on site at each launch facility. This manual process is now being changed to one that is conducted remotely from the launch control capsule by a team of missileers.

Before the remote code change can be conducted, launch facilities must all be properly configured to the new format, a considerable effort for the maintenance group, said Master Sgt. Adam Urban, 90th Missile Maintenance Squadron, noncommissioned officer in charge of Electromechanical Maintenance Team section. 

“With an average of a three-person team, EMT expended a total of 1,965 man-hours and typically accomplished one or two sites every day, including many weekends, until the whole squadron of 50 launch facilities and five missile alert facilities was complete,” Urban said. “Each day reconfiguring launch facilities was between 11 to 14 hours; with the days we were dispatched to the missile alert facilities taking about eight.”

Urban said that though his teams worked long hours, it was only from the efforts of other units that they had the resources required to complete the job.

“EMTs efforts really came from a culmination of many other actions for the ICU II rollout, such as the electronic laboratory section of the 790th Maintenance Squadron logging many manhours handling procuring, storing, packing and shipping the old component drawer units,” Urban said. “Additionally, the OSS [Operations Support Squadron] codes section coded KS-60 code components about every day to ensure the new drawer could communicate with the rest of the system.”

The process of reconfiguring a missile squadron’s AOR to ICU II consists of three phases, said Capt. Aaron McLarty, 320th Missile Squadron director of training. The first phase, initial implementation, involves ensuring everyone involved understands what ICU II is, and what goes into a remote code change. The second phase is like a typical code change and is what prepares the site to be formatted for a remote code change.

“Phase two of the process was the largest movement of personnel and resources, involving the code shop, maintenance and security forces,” McClarty said. “Codes dispatch the properly coded components to maintenance, then the maintainers and defenders go out to the launch facilities multiple times over the course of a couple of months, getting them into a state of configuration for the operator in the capsule to be able to conduct that remote code change.”

The third phase is the culmination of all the previous efforts in conducting the remote code change, which required substantial training of the missileers in the new procedure.

“The third phase was a code change conducted remotely, which is one of the major capabilities of ICU II,” said Capt. Dustin Maglinti, 90th OSS weapons and tactics instructor. “With its completion, it reduces the manpower required for code change, maintenance and security forces personnel, lessens the need for moving code components from base to the missile field and now we have this capability where we can do all of this remotely.”

From the thousands of hours that went into a legacy code change, the manpower requirement of ICU II diminishes to one eight-hour shift for the missileers on duty that day.

A lot of our day-to-day experience is doing a lot more with fewer people and less resources, and ICU helps a lot with that,” McClarty said. “We're still accomplishing this code change, just like we normally would, but now we're cutting down tremendous numbers of personnel that no longer have to be involved in the physical maneuver of code change.”

For all the benefit to the wings’ missileers, ICU II will positively impact the Airmen of the maintenance and security forces groups of the three missile wings too.

In the case of the maintenance groups, leaving the traditional code change format will free up hundreds of maintenance personnel to devote resources to the important job of maintaining the venerable LGM-30G Minuteman III.

“An ICU II Code Change will free 163 personnel to continue their maintenance duties of maintaining and sustaining the launch facilities, missile alert facilities and ICBMs on alert here at F.E. Warren,” Fasting said. “That sums up to 3,000 hours a year returned to the task of maintaining the 50-year-old Minuteman III.

In addition to the benefits of better allocated maintenance personnel, there are positive effects to other units and a direct benefit to the security of coded components. 

“The second- and third-order effects of this are freed MAF space, the costs of and requirement for second chefs, the reduced cost of sundries and linens from not resting overnight and returning that time to our folks and their families,” Fasting said. “Lastly, not carrying as many coded components to the field reduces the security risks from that material.”

The 91st and 341st Maintenance Groups are expected to see similar outcomes.

Like the maintainers, defenders will see their responsibilities specific to code change lessen, as the requirement to protect open sites decreases.

"The Defenders of the Mighty Ninety are always ready to ensure that launch facility sites are secure during code change operations," said Lt. Col. William Brokaw, 90th Missile Security Forces Squadron commander. "However, following the completion of ICU II, the dated approach to security response during those operations becomes much more limited, and that frees up personnel and resources for other aspects of the Big Missiles’ mission."

Though the security forces response specific to ICU II code change is not as significant as during manual code change, the physical defense of the complex will not diminish with the change – in fact, it will increase.

“The ICU II upgrade, by nature of design, is more secure and allows security forces defenders the flexibility to focus on all areas of security more effectively and efficiently across the complex,” Brokaw said. “ICU II allows more defenders to patrol the field than ever before and guarantees security and safety of our sites and assets.”

While the process of converting the sites to ICU II is a significant process for personnel across the operations and maintenance specialties, the result is a more secure missile field with more resources returned to the wing. Though the process has not been finalized, all three wings are working toward converting all their sites to ICU II over 2023.