The Code to Nuclear Security
By Tech. Sgt. Joseph Park, 341st Missile Wing Public Affairs
/ Published May 25, 2021
MALMSTROM AIR FORCE BASE, Mont. --
Every Airman at Malmstrom Air Force Base understands the importance of ensuring that the base’s fleet of intercontinental ballistic missiles are kept secure. One flight within the 341st Operations Support Squadron plays a critical role ensuring that every ICBM in the field is safe, secure, and ready to launch at any time—the codes flight.
Most people think a code is something stored digitally made of zeroes and ones, but when it comes to securing the most cost-effective leg of the nuclear deterrence umbrella, a code can also be stored in an analog format in a physical object.
“In order to actually launch a missile, there are various codes that have to be inserted and verified from the launch control center to the launch facility in sequence,” said Capt. Alexander Garland, 341st OSS nuclear cryptographic operator. “Which makes it more difficult for someone who somehow gained access to the system to hack it.”
Even if someone were to penetrate the closed-loop system, it still wouldn’t be possible for them to launch a missile, as it requires a second LCC to confirm a launch. The codes flight also gives every other on-duty missileer in the area of responsibility the ability to send an inhibit code to prevent an erroneous launch.
The 341st OSS codes flight receives codes from U.S. Strategic Command, and ensures that they are inserted properly at LCCs and LFs, at the capsules and the missiles.
“We generate, verify, control launch codes, communication codes, inhibit codes for the ICBM’s and ICBM weapon system that allow it to do what it does. We issue the codes, and makes sure everything within the console and the site is coded properly,” said Tech. Sgt. Seth Rutt, 341st OSS nuclear cryptographic controller. “That way when the order comes down, the crew members do their thing, and the missile works.”
Should the U.S. need to respond quickly to an emerging attack, ICBMs provide the most rapid-response option with assured connectivity to the only person who can order a launch.
“In order to launch a missile, you first have to have authorization from the President of the United States,” said Garland. “The president is the sole person who can authorize the launch of the missile.”
The ICBMs have been the bedrock of military stability globally since their creation, and although there have been some upgrades, the system is largely unchanged.
“It’s changed a little bit, but not drastically since then, “said Garland, “We still use some of the same processes, and even some of the same equipment that we’ve had from the 1960’s.”
One of the most critical components of the ICBM force has remain unchanged since its inception: the Airmen who continuously maintain the system, ensuring that it remains safe, secure, reliable, and ready to defend the U.S. and our allies at a moment’s notice.