VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. --
For more than 50 years, the 583rd Missile Maintenance Squadron – formerly Detachment 41 of Strategic Air Command, and now a geographically separated unit assigned to the 309th Missile Maintenance Group at Ogden Air Logistics Complex – has provided depot level launch support for every Intercontinental Ballistic Missile test from Vandenberg AFB.
Every Minuteman III ICBM launch requires both the Missile Suspension System, and the launcher closure door components, to work perfectly for every launch, despite being a decades-old system.
“The launcher closure door components are replaced and rebuilt after every test launch and the Missile Suspension System is rebuilt after every four launches,” said George Croll, 583rd MMXS general manager. “Working for Air Force Sustainment Center, the 583rd MMXS provides on-base Depot Level support to the 576th Flight Test Squadron and the critical ICBM Test Launch Program they perform in support of National Security.”
The Weapon System itself is well over 40 years old, including the MM I, MM II and now the MM III missiles, and has undergone more than a few changes in its lifespan.
“In the early days of the Minuteman Weapon System, the missile rested on a large metal ring at the bottom of the silo,” said Croll. “This was later upgraded to what is called the Missile Suspension System, which suspends the missile while it is in the silo. The Missile Suspension System keeps the missile floating several feet above the bottom of the silo and can absorb any nearby tremors, while staying operational. The 50,000 pound MSS protects the Missile and ensures reliability under the most adverse circumstances.”
The 110-ton silo doors need maintenance after every launch, and the 583rd MMXS has rebuilt these launcher closure door components since the inception of the weapon system.
“All the components that make the door roll back are in our purview along with the MSS,” said Croll. “The doors are 110 tons, because out in the real world they need to be able to withstand a nearby nuclear blast, protecting the missile underneath hanging in the MSS. In order to move that much weight reliably, everything has to work without fail. We rebuild the parts for the doors after every launch, so when the launch door opens when it is supposed to, that is all us. We make that magic happen.”
The entire unit is comprised of civil service employees, with decades of combined missile experience.
“In our 30-person unit, here, we have more than 200 years of combined Minuteman experience,” said Croll. “Missile business is very tech-order driven, and even after decades of working on the same system we still find better, cheaper and faster ways to do our jobs. A lot of the guys here retired from the Air Force and used to work in the missile fields. We have become a good home for them after they separate or retire because they already have a good base of knowledge about the weapons system.”
The 583rd doesn’t just support the missile launch operations at Vandenberg, they also support all active missile silos in the Air Force, providing launcher closer door components for the newly initiated Minuteman III Programmed Depot Maintenance efforts that are ongoing at F.E. Warren, Malmstrom and Minot AFB’s.
“Vandenberg is the only base that does missile test launches,” said Croll. “And we are the only base that refurbishes the launcher closer door components and also the MSS. Our team takes a lot of pride in our unique mission supporting both the Test Launch Program lead by the 576 FLTS and the PDM program ongoing at the three active missile wings, F.E. Warren, Minot and Malmstrom. Additionally, if something goes wrong with an MSS, we send a team out there, replace the MSS and bring it back to VAFB. Then we tear it down, sandblast it, repaint it and all the components, and refurbish or replace any worn out parts, making it like new again. The design has worked so well that about 99 percent of that MSS is the way it was when it was originally built in the 1970’s. We consider ourselves the blue collar guys behind the scenes that make sure the sites are ready, which is the mission of AFMC the ‘Depot Maintainers’ of the Air Force. We have really perfected our systems and dialed in our expertise.”
With innovation at the heart of their work, using ‘The Art of the Possible’ methodology, the 583rd MMXS never lets the job get old, and is constantly seeking ways to improve the system.
“Using advanced technology, we can make our own parts in our computer numerical control machines when necessary,” said Croll. “With a system this old, sometimes you can’t always get the components you need, so we stepped up and found a way to make some parts that have not been manufactured in decades. There is a rigorous process to get certified to build some of the parts, and we work closely with our counterparts in DLA and the Nuclear Weapons Center to ensure they are built to original specifications.”
The unit is comprised of many dedicated individuals, some of which have spent decades with ICBMs. John Reish, 583rd MMXS engineering technician, is one such individual who has been working with ICBMs for 44 years.
“I joined in 1972 as a young airman,” said Reish. “I ended up going to tech school and training on the Minuteman I system, right after they started changing them out for the Minuteman II system. We had to carry both technical manuals around with us in the field since we didn’t know what we would end up working on. Later in my career I became a missile maintenance instructor for the new airmen. I have felt that my career evolved along with the Minuteman system. It’s been a gradual evolution for me and the weapons system, and a very rewarding journey. It’s been so rewarding for me that I wanted to stay with it when I retired. I can help a lot of the newer guys, who haven’t had as much background experience, really understand the significance of what we do. Every day we have the privilege of going to a job that helps keep the world free, and you just can’t beat that.”