ARNOLD AIR FORCE BASE, Tenn. --
Arnold Engineering Development Complex has supported the land-based leg of the nation’s nuclear triad, the Minuteman Intercontinental Ballistic Missile, since 1958 when the first iteration was still in development.
As the complex continues to support the Minuteman III program with aging and surveillance testing of stage II and III motors, Team AEDC has begun providing test and evaluation support for the next-generation nuclear deterrent, the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent.
“The Ground Based Strategic Deterrent ICBM is a total weapon system replacement of the Minuteman III weapon system,” said Rick Gamble, a subject matter expert with AEDC.
The Air Force Test Center is the Minuteman III and GBSD lead developmental test and evaluation organization, and AEDC, a wing-equivalent organization within AFTC, is the executing test organization. The ICBM Test Branch of AEDC’s Test Division and the GBSD Combined Test Force provide personnel to support ICBM developmental test and evaluation. Other branches within the Test Division and the 704th Test Group of AEDC provide the facilities and personnel to perform ground testing.
“The one-of-a-kind national assets and people of AEDC, to include those capabilities and teams at Holloman Air Force Base, Eglin Air Force Base and Tunnel 9 in Maryland, are absolutely critical to the timely fielding of this ‘once-every-other-generation’ weapon system,” said Lt. Col. Jeremey Thomas, director of the GBSD CTF. “It’s not just a place to check final assembly and systems, but we will be doing risk reduction throughout the program across the entire complex. This is vital to ensuring no surprises as we move through the next 10 years of the program and start test for score. It allows us to work issues early while we can still fix them.
“In most instances, there is nowhere else in the U.S., and even the world, we could do these things. This program is extremely dependent on the people and resources of AEDC, and that includes all the people and locations under the AEDC umbrella. The handprints of the great people and capabilities of AEDC are all over the weapon system that will ensure nuclear deterrence and peace for the next 50-plus years, and so many folks will never really know it. So, for the current and future generations depending on Team AEDC, thank you for what you do. It truly will make a difference in our future.”
Each element of the new weapon system must be tested thoroughly, to include the missile; the communication, command and launch systems; ground support systems; and physical protection systems as missiles transition to and from the silos and when placed on alert. Testing will include physical test articles and extensive use of digital twins of the complete weapon system to expand the scope of test and evaluation, and shorten the acquisition timelines.
Ground testing at AEDC facilities is a key component of the testing necessary to successfully field the weapons system. Through ground testing in facilities that can simulate operationally-relevant environments, programs decrease risk before moving to flight testing, which can save both time and money.
“AEDC testing is primarily focused on the aerovehicle equipment, or missile, components, although climatic testing will include other elements,” Gamble said. “Without the AEDC facilities, the prime [contractor] and the government would not be able to adequately anchor the digital models with physical data, thus increasing the risk the weapon system might not meet the specifications, or that an undiscovered design flaw might not be detected early enough to avoid schedule delays.”
Northrop Grumman, engineering and manufacturing development phase contractor for the GBSD program, successfully completed the integrated baseline review for the program in 2021 and is moving into the engineering and manufacturing development phase. They are leading a nationwide team of several various-sized companies. AEDC has begun providing test and evaluation support for the EMD phase.
The GBSD program is scheduled for initial operational capability by 2029, with plans to replace Minuteman III ICBMs and upgrade silos and alert centers.
In 2021, representatives from Northrop Grumman and the Air Force Nuclear Weapons Center visited Arnold Air Force Base, headquarters of AEDC, to tour some of the test facilities and learn about the T&E capabilities relevant to the GBSD program.
Test entries are being planned and executed using several of the T&E capabilities offered by AEDC, including the following areas:
Rocket Propulsion Ground T&E
The Space Test Branch will evaluate rocket motor ballistic and sub-system performance at simulated high-altitude flight conditions using the Large Rocket Motor Test Facility J-6 at Arnold AFB. The facility has been regularly employed to support the aging and surveillance testing of Stage II and III motors for the Minuteman III. J-6 is capable of simulating high-altitude static fire test conditions for large rocket motors. Static firing enables the assessment and validation of the rocket motor performance and structural integrity. Planning for rocket motor testing is underway.
High-Temperature Material Characterization & Evaluation
The Space Test Branch will collect data on thermal protection materials using the arc jet test cells at Arnold AFB. The arc heaters can simulate the aerodynamic heating and mid-to-high shear pressures experienced by weapon systems in flight.
Hypervelocity Flyout, Impact and Lethality Ground Test & Evaluation
The Space Test Branch will use the ballistic ranges at Arnold AFB to collect data of scale models and provide scaled hypervelocity flyout data to support validation of models. AEDC ballistic ranges enable free-flight testing on the ground at simulated altitude conditions. Planning for flyout testing in support of the GBSD program is underway.
High-Altitude/Space Environmental Effects and Sensors Ground T&E
The Space Test Branch will evaluate the performance of GBSD systems in the high-altitude/space environmental chambers at Arnold AFB under select environmental conditions to verify the design and validate performance. The team is exploring methodologies to ensure they can provide the system program office with the best information for making key decisions.
von Kármán Gas Dynamics Facility
The Aerodynamics Test Branch will perform force and moment, pressure and heat transfer, and stage separation testing of GBSD ICBM models in Tunnels A, B and C in the von Kármán Gas Dynamics Facility at Arnold AFB. Each tunnel is able to run continuously at hypersonic conditions with data collections systems that enable the simultaneous characterization of the aerodynamics and the aerothermodynamics of a test article. The branch is restoring a capability unique to AEDC to support stage separation testing for the GBSD program – the hypersonic captive trajectory support system. The first round of testing has begun, while work with the customer to finalize the complex stage separation test plan continues.
Hypervelocity Wind Tunnel 9
The Aerodynamics Test Branch will use the Hypervelocity Wind Tunnel 9 located at White Oak, Maryland. The tunnel is a high Reynolds number, large-scale ground-test facility that provides calibrated test conditions at multiple discrete hypersonic Mach numbers.
Holloman High Speed Test Track
The 846th Test Squadron has and will subject GBSD components to rocket sled testing at the Holloman High Speed Test Track. Rocket sled testing simulates selected portions of the flight environment and allows the program to identify the effects of acceleration and associated factors on systems, subsystems, components and even manufacturing techniques and materials. The sled will also be used heavily to collect data to refine various models which will be key parts of risk reduction and operation testing.
The 746th Test Squadron is scheduled to execute a variety of testing on the communications and navigations systems. In addition, they will be supporting test at the sled track by providing and operating equipment that provides the reference position of the sled during launches. The position reference provided by the squadron allows for intricate analysis of the accuracy of the guidance system of the GBSD. Some of the onboard instrumentation is also provided by the 746th TS.
McKinley Climatic Laboratory
The Propulsion Test Branch Operating Location will conduct testing in support of the GBSD program using the test chambers of the McKinley Climatic Laboratory at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida. At the laboratory, systems can be subjected to the extremes of the various climates found around the world in order to prove operational reliability.