Skip to main content

Video Above: Former CIA Leader Explains Why Zelensky & Ukraine Have Inspired The Free World --

By Kris Osborn, President Center for Military Modernization

(Washington D.C) While senior military leaders and members of Congress cite a long-list of reasons why the Pentagon needs to stay on course to deliver the new Sentinel ICBM by 2029, there is a particular high-tech concern being echoed by weapons developers related to continued use of the upgraded Minuteman III ICBM. Simply, it could be hacked.

While military leaders are of course clear not to elaborate on specifics related to technical threats, many make the general point that the upgraded Minuteman III ICBM is simply insufficient to address a new threat environment. For instance, Russian and Chinese “cyber-hacking” technology and fast-evolving development of space weapons and jamming technologies have massively increased the threat equation when it comes to ensuring that a Minuteman III will be able to stay on course to a target.

LGM-30G Minuteman III

Minuteman III nuclear missiles will be replaced by the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent, which won't enter service until 2029. Here, Airmen maintain a 50-year-old Minuteman III at the F.E. Warren Air Force Base missile complex in Wyoming. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Abbigayle Williams.

A recently published new RAND study called Modernizing the U.S. Nuclear Triad: The Rationale for a New Intercontinental Ballistic Missile | RAND takes up this question and cites comments from Adm. Charles Richard, Command of US Strategic Command, specifically highlighting potential adversaries “cyber capabilities.”

The text of the report quotes Richard saying “I need a weapon that can fly and make it to the target. Minuteman III is increasingly challenged in its ability to do that…… “[t]here is almost no possibility of an upgrade (to the Minuteman III) on that relative to the threat.”

By contrast, the new Ground Based Strategic Deterrent (called the Sentinel) is being engineered with what the RAND study calls a “dedicated cybersecurity component tasked with integrating cyber requirements throughout the system design.” The RAND essay goes on to say that this current cyber focus related to The Sentinel is a “stark contrast to the Minuteman III, which was first developed and fielded before the invention of the internet and which senior defense officials have cautioned can no longer be retrofitted to meet evolving cyber threats.”

While many of the specifics related to these threats are not likely to be available for security reasons, there do seem to be a few areas where enemy cyber attacks might focus. Certainly computerized ground-based command and control networks could be targeted with intrusions, denial of service or malware attacks. 

Scroll to Continue

Recommended for You

Video Above: A Conversation with Peter Huessy, Senior Warrior Maven Nuclear Weapons Analyst

Guidance systems could be targeted by software programmable RF or EW signals seeking to “jam” an ICBMs flight trajectory toward a target and communications networks engineered to relay time-sensitive threat information to decision-makers could also be targeted. For several years now, the Air Force has been working on implementing a 7-point cyber security effort intended to increase cyber resilience by finding and addressing potential vulnerabilities early in the developmental process. 

The intent, first outlined by Air Force Materiel Command years ago, is to “bake in” cyber protections by identifying possible risks during the prototyping and early digital engineering phases of development. Digital engineering is one reason the new Sentinel is on track to emerge by 2029, because weapons developers had opportunities to examine multiple design models before actually “bending metal.” Addressing cyber security was likely a major part of this, given the fast-changing threat equation.

As part of the Sentinel preparation and technological maturation process, the Air Force has been working with Northrop Grumman to engineer an entirely new command and control system, computing infrastructure and networking ability. Some of the specific efforts have involved finding ways to ensure that “enemy intrusions” cannot access any kind of launch protocol system.

The advanced Command and Control is also likely to secure data transfer from threat detection systems to higher authorities to shorten the timeline or notification curve between when senior decision makers learn of a threat and responsive weapons systems are put on alert. This incorporates space connectivity with secured and fortified ground control stations in position to quickly integrate with ICBMs should there be some kind of unanticipated “bolt out of the blue” attack.

Trident-D5 Submarine ICBM

Trident-D5 Submarine ICBM

The growing extent to which weapons systems are cyber reliant reinforces the need to harden command and control networks and computer processing for the new ICBMs, as advanced connectivity can bring unprecedented advantages while also introducing some risks. This may be why the entire hardware and software infrastructure necessary to support the new ICBMs is essentially being rebuilt with upgradeable, securely developed technologies.

Finally, along with designing and building the missiles themselves, prototypes of which already exist, the Northrop Grumman-Air Force effort includes a rebuilding of the entire ICBM infrastructure to include new launch facilities and launch centers, as well as new software and Command and Control technology. Northrop Grumman is reconstructing as many as 450 launch facilities and building the first prototype components of the ICBM, which will first fire off in 2023

Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Master’s Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.