Blasting Into New Territory:

Just as operating an increasingly older aircraft inventory is forcing the Air Force into uncharted areas of maintenance, so too, is the service’s missile community facing similar challenges as it mulls how long beyond 2020 it can retain the Minuteman III ICBM fleet, USAF’s top space general said March 4. “I’m not ready to stand up and say that that system definitely can go to 2030,” Gen. Robert Kehler, commander of Air Force Space Command, told the Senate Armed Service strategic forces subcommittee. He responded to the question posed by Sen. Bill Nelson’s (D-Fla.) the panel’s chairman, on the ability to operate the missiles until 2030 as Congress has asked USAF to explore. While upgrades to date place the Air Force “in a good position” for that, “a harder look” is necessary, Kehler said, noting that maintaining the missiles so long is venturing onto new ground. “Much like our aging aircraft that we’ve had some issues with, we don’t know what Minuteman, as a system, looks like when it gets over the age of 50 or 60 or approaches 70,” he said. Gary Payton, deputy under secretary of the Air Force for Space Programs, said at the same hearing the Air Force is “confident” that it can keep the Minuteman III missiles “at least to 2020, and, in high likelihood, to 2030” based on the recent upgrades to the fleet, but it will be able to judge that more accurately only after conducting aging tests.