Air Force test-launches intercontinental ballistic missile

Air Force test-launches intercontinental ballistic missile
© Courtesy the Defense Visual Information Distribution Service

The U.S. military test-launched an unarmed intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) early Wednesday, Air Force Global Strike Command said in a news release.

The Minuteman III, which the Air Force said was fitted with a test re-entry vehicle, was launched at 12:33 a.m. Pacific Time from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif.

The re-entry vehicle traveled about 4,200 miles to the Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands, the release said.

ADVERTISEMENT

“The Minuteman III is aging, and modernization programs such as this are essential in ensuring that our nation has a reliable nuclear deterrent through the rest of its lifespan and beyond,” Col. Omar Colbert, 576th Flight Test Squadron Commander, said in a statement. “Most importantly, this visible indicator of our national security capabilities serves to assure our partners and dissuade potential aggressors.”

The Air Force described the test as a Developmental Test Launch, meaning that it used a spare missile from storage to verify flight worthiness of new or replacement parts. By contrast, routine Operational Test Launches use a randomly selected fielded ICBM to test fleet-wide reliability.

The Air Force stressed that missile tests are planned six months to a year in advance, with the launch calendars built three to five years in advance — meaning tests are not meant to respond to world events.

But some arms control advocates noted Wednesday’s test coincided with a one-year deadline for the New START Treaty’s expiration.

The treaty caps the number of deployed nuclear warheads the United States and Russia are allowed to have, as well as delivery systems for the warheads such as ICBMs. It is set to expire Feb. 5, 2021, but can be extended for another five years, a step arms control advocates are urging the Trump administration to take.

ADVERTISEMENT

“This morning, exactly one year before New START treaty expires, the US Air Force test launched a Minuteman III ICBM into the Pacific,” tweeted Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists. “The test flew an unarmed W87 warhead and was part of a multi-billion dollar program to develop a new and more advanced fuze for the warhead.”