Science and Technology News

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Nuclear satellite terminal upgrade to begin operational testing

by Justin Oakes
66th Air Base Group Public Affairs


1/14/2015 - HANSCOM AIR FORCE BASE, Mass. -- The nuclear satellite communication terminals that connect U.S. leaders to Minuteman combat crews in the event of a nuclear attack are currently undergoing an upgrade and scheduled to begin operational testing this month.

Simply put, the Air Force will be updating its intercontinental ballistic missile, or ICBM, communication systems located in the ICBM Launch Control Centers. This is an effort led by the Minuteman Minimum Essential Emergency Communications Network Program Upgrade team, or MMPU for short, at Hanscom Air Force Base, Mass. MMPU will be the first Air Force Advanced Extremely High Frequency terminal fielded in support of the new AEHF satellite architecture.

Using extremely high frequency signals from a Milstar satellite, current terminals receive emergency action messages and serve as the primary SATCOM system for ICBM LCCs. The development of the AEHF satellite constellation to replace Milstar requires the Air Force to upgrade its hardware to support AEHF operations.

According to program officials, the month-long operational testing period will determine how well the new equipment operates in the field while running on active networks.

"The end result is an upgrade that will bring numerous benefits, including an expansion in capability, enhanced operator control and a state-of-the-art security architecture," said Brett Fagan, MMPU program manager. "For example, backwards compatibility is crucial. After we modify the existing EHF terminals, we will be able to communicate with both AEHF satellite and Milstar EHF constellations."

One of the most notable capability improvements comes in the form of data rate transfers. Under the AEHF satellite constellation, messages are transmitted many times faster than the current Milstar system.

In addition to increased data rates, MMPU will provide a state-of-the-art nuclear security architecture.

"When dealing with nuclear assets, it goes without saying that having the most up-to-date security technology is critical," Fagan said. "The upgraded terminals will be equipped with the latest crypto modifications and modern crypto key designs."

Another key difference between the legacy system and MMPU's version pertains specifically to Minuteman combat crew operators -- MMPU gives them more control. LCC operators will now have the ability to switch satellites through the terminal, eliminating the need for maintenance crew dispatch to change the terminal communication plans.

"Many LCCs are not easy to get to, so the ability to avoid the dispatch of maintenance teams for routine tasks ensures a more seamless mission capability," Fagan said.

MMPU program officials remain optimistic that the upgrade will reach initial operational capability in early 2016. Ultimately, the team intends to modify all the terminals within the LCCs managed by three bases: Malmstrom AFB, Mont.; F.E. Warren AFB, Wyo.; and Minot AFB, N.D.

"MMPU provides our national leadership with an advanced, secure and agile C3 capability for our ICBM forces, and will greatly enhance crew communications,"  said Col. Todd Krueger, Space, Aerial and Nuclear Networks Division senior materiel leader. "A successful operational test is the last major step before fielding this critical system. We are ready to go, and I'm confident we will succeed."

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