This article first appeared in the May 2020 LA-LV AIAA Section Newsletter. It is the first of a series of articles.
We ICBM sustainers have decades of experience using systems engineering to manage a very complex weapon system. These skills, and the way we combined them, can provide valuable lessons for people sustaining their own complex systems today, whether military or civilian.
The ICBM community in the mid-to-late 20th century was a tight-knit group, a fanatical mafia set apart from the common man (at least in our own minds). Our tribe worked together with a disciplined focus to support the most important mission in the world, nuclear deterrence.
Walls around the community included our own jargon, legitimate information restrictions (e.g. confidential, secret, top secret, NOFORN, official use only, & etc.), rare technical knowledge (“rocket science”), a sense of us against the rest of the Air Force, and even a desire from the common American citizen to not look too closely at very scary weapons.
These conditions made sharing our breakthroughs in the sustainment of complex systems with outsiders much less likely. Yet managers and sustainers, military and civilian, outside our mafia could benefit greatly from these breakthroughs.
This and the next few articles I will place in this newsletter will pass along this skill.
Let’s start by looking at the history of ICBMs.
In the 1950’s, the realization that ICBMs must be managed from a “systems engineering” standpoint was inherent in the ICBM program from the very beginning. When General Schriever began the program, he sought help from Dean Wooldridge and Simon Ramos. They were the founders of TRW and their biggest selling point was bringing the discipline of systems engineering to the USAF and the hundreds of contractors involved in the design, production, and deployment of thousands of ICBMs. (See Fiery Peace in a Cold Warby Neil Sheehan, the best resource to study this critical part of our nation’s history).
Here’s another little piece of history that is not so well-known. From 1963 to 1992, the University of Southern California’s Institute of Safety and Systems Management trained USAF officers in the discipline of “Systems Management”, awarding a master of science in the subject. Think of it as applying systems engineering to the management of complex weapon systems. And the Air Force certainly had some complicated weapons showing up in our inventories in this time period, ICBMs being the most complicated.
Nearly from the beginning in the 1950’s it was understood that certain aspects of this massive complex system had to be focused on sustainment, that is, sustaining the capability of the system to provide effective deterrence over the years after initial deployment. For instance, sufficient numbers of missiles were produced to allow for frequent flight tests. Solid motor fuel was tracked for cracking. Gyroscopes were not only refurbished, but also re-characterized as they transited the repair depot to help improve missile accuracy.
Performance and hardware tracking data systems were developed and improved. When liquid 4th stages were developed and produced for Minuteman III, extras were built for the sole purpose of age surveillance. Other similar approaches accelerated and were considered part of the cost of doing business throughout the 1960s and 1970s.
As time moved forward, ICBMs no longer enjoyed the #1 priority they had in the earlier years. For instance, subsequent US presidents were, understandably, not granting General Schriever’s successors the same kind of top cover he received during initial designs and deployments. USAF budgets were beset by Viet Nam priorities and after Viet Nam, dealing with hollow force issues. On the vendor side, even industries that ICBMs helped create, such as Texas Instruments, were less responsive. Formerly, they actively looked for ways to help the Air Force, but subsequently created gigantic civilian markets. With much larger number of orders than the USAF could ever have, these customers got most of the vendors’ attention.
In the 1980’s, the workload for ICBM sustainers grew significantly as their ability to muster priority declined, their funding shrank, and new risks and failure modes emerged that were never prepared for by the original designers.
Another part of the trend was the march to transfer various ICBM programs from Air Force Systems Command development to Air Force Logistics Command sustainment. Not strictly true, but generally, USAF officers and civil servants new to ICBMs in California and Utah focused their efforts on sustainment and older, seasoned personnel still worked development programs. Many of these folks in both areas had the USC Systems Management degree. Contractors such as TRW, Boeing, Lockheed, and Northrop hired separated and retired USAF ICBM experts, many with the Systems Management degree. And even if cooperation between AFSC and AFLC sometimes waned, the individuals who worked ICBMs in both organizations knew each other and helped each other keep ICBMs a viable deterrent.
The nation now had a vast maze of the nation’s thousands of different ICBMs deployed across the Northern Tier and maintained across the US. The Strategic Air Command continued their insistence on (impossibly?) high standards of availability, reliability, accuracy, hardness from attack, safety, and surety.
I was a separated USAF captain hired by TRW in 1985 with a BS in Astronautical Engineering, fresh experience in the USAF Space Program at Los Angeles AFS, and the USC degree in Systems Management. My impression of those times was that sustainers were feeling the pressure, and the lessons from the USC program in systems management rose up to help solve these problems.
Stepping back even earlier to the dawn of the Industrial Revolution (think Evans Flour Mill, 1795) and the dawn of Industrial warfare (US Civil War, 1865), the dawn of aerospace itself (controlled powered flight, 1903), the birth of systems engineering (Bell Labs, late 1930’s), a trend becomes obvious. More and more complex systems are being mass produced and each system is living longer as each year passes. Conclusion: If you are not yet part of a team sustaining a complex system, you will be.
With the end of the Cold War, fewer USAF officers on alert taking correspondence courses, and fewer aerospace companies in the Los Angeles area attending on campus, the business model for the USC Systems Management degree led to its end in 1992, and eventually the Institute itself ended in 1997. Some professors within the Institute transferred to the Viterbi School of Engineering, the alumni of this program became part of the Viterbi School of Engineering alumni group. USAF officers are still expected to get masters degrees early in their careers, but the Master of Science in Systems Management is no longer among the options.
This is the first in a series of newsletter articles that describes the solution that the ICBM sustainers came up with, how they fit that solution into one integrated sustainment management system, and what these solutions mean for all of us today as we struggle with the very same problems that the 1980’s ICBM sustainers struggled with.
Over the next few newsletters, we will see how observing the precisely-defined system can lead to well-crafted risk priority lists and risk mitigation programs, integrated for efficient deployment. We will see how a few do-able culture changes create teammates ready to identify emerging issues. And we will see how processes and data systems are kept up to date to support these approaches.
Next newsletter, we will start with defining our terms, especially readiness factors such as availability, reliability, accuracy, hardness from attack, safety, and surety.
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