Drone Delivery: From Amazon to the Air Force

Changes in FAA policy on Unmanned Aircraft Systems hold promise for boosting the surety and safety of U.S. nuclear forces.

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Could evolving FAA policy allow for the integration of Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) into the Operations and Maintenance (O&M) of Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs)? The 2012 Airspace Modernization Act directed the FAA to make provisions to integrate UAS into the National Airspace (NAS).[1] Although the FAA has not met their initial five year roadmap plan to introduce civil UAS into the NAS, they are working through the necessary policy and technology hurdles to make this a reality by 2025.[2] Eventually, properly equipped UAS of all sizes will be able to file and fly an Instrument Flight Rules flight plan without the need for the special approvals, waivers, or chase aircraft currently required. This policy change opens the possibility for taking advantage of UAS in innovative ways for the O&M of current and future ICBM weapon systems.

The current ICBM weapon system, the Minuteman III (MMIII) is deployed across three U.S. Air Force Base (AFB) wings (the 90th Missile Wing at F.E. Warren AFB in Wyoming, the 341st Missile Wing at Malmstrom AFB in Montana, and the 91st Missile Wing at Minot AFB in North Dakota)[3]. The missiles are deployed in subterranean silos housed in Launch Facilities (LFs) which are each at least three miles from each other and controlled in groups of ten from Launch Control Centers, which are at a minimum of 14 miles from each other. Together, the missile wings span over 23,000 square miles across the northern plains.[4] While the actual land the missile installations take up are part of the AFB, they are dispersed throughout rural land, much of which is privately owned and thus subject to FAA regulation. The great expanse of land each missile wing is spread out across results in a significant amount of transit time spent by Maintainers and Security Forces to perform scheduled operations and ad hoc maintenance tasks. For example, in 2012, it was reported that the O&M teams of F.E. Warren’s 90th Missile Wing travelled around 7.5 million miles performing tasks to keep the wing operating at the necessary levels.[5]

Once the new FAA regulations are in place, UAS could streamline supply deliveries for ICBM O&M. Unmanned rotorcraft have already been deployed operationally by the U.S. military, with a defined roadmap for an increased integration for supply delivery, surveillance, and even tactical applications.[6] Given the current challenges of deploying the proper personnel and equipment to a dynamically prioritized list of maintenance tasks, the ability to rapidly deliver equipment and tools to the widely dispersed sites could offer some welcomed relaxation in scheduling demands.[7] The extreme weather often experienced at the missile wings also poses a danger to the personnel as they drive long stretches of roads across the northern plains. Reducing the time crew members are in transit not only frees them them to perform other tasks but also removes them from potentially dangerous situations.

One use case for this UAS application is when a maintenance crew at an LF realizes they need a part or tool they do not have after having penetrated the LF. Rather than waiting for someone to drive it out to them or leaving to get it themselves, which could take hours, they could have what they need delivered to them via a rapid air transport UAS that could land directly at the LF site. Loading the necessary supplies onto a UAS and sending it on its way allows for delivery without the personnel transit time that otherwise would have been required. Using UAS for supply delivery also could reduce the time maintainers and their security escorts are present at a particular site. Reducing the amount of time that the crew might need to spend at the LF or Missile Alert Facility (MAF) reduces the chance that those individuals would need to remain overnight at the MAF (due to weather or crew rest requirements). This could reduce the time that the missile is exposed to a security vulnerability and thus overall increases the surety and safety of the nuclear system.

Supply delivery is one example of a larger area of opportunity in the O&M of ICBMs for the integration of greater autonomy into the weapon system. Whether it is upgrading the MMIII weapon system with these new technologies or looking at future system capabilities, there are a host of mature technologies ripe for leverage in this area.

[1] 112th Congress, Public Law 112-95, (2012)

[2] NASA, NASA UAS Integration Efforts UAS-NAS RFI Package,

[3] “ICBM 50th Golden Legacy Enduring Deterrent”,  http://www.nationalmuseum.af.mil/Portals/7/documents/other/af_space_command_icbm50th.pdf (accessed April 4, 2018)

[4] Ahlborn, David et al, Environmental Assessment Minuteman III Deactivation, (Malmstrom AFB: 341 Civil Engineer Squadron, 2007), 2-1 – 2-5

[5] Church, Aaron M, “Nuke Field Vigilance”, Air Force Magazine, August 2012

[6] Kendall, Frank, Winnefeld Jr, James A, Unmanned Systems Integrated Roadmap FY2013-2038, Department of Defense

[7] Overholts II, Capt Dale L, Improving Intercontinental Ballistic Missile Maintenance Scheduling Through The Use of Location Analysis Methodologies, Air Force Institute of Technology, (2006)

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