AFNWC team supports ICBM test launch

A team of Air Force Nuclear Weapons Center experts supported the recent launch of an unarmed intercontinental ballistic missile to verify its accuracy and reliability, providing valuable data to ensure this safe, secure, effective nuclear deterrent is ready every day to defend the United States and its allies.

An unarmed LGM-30G Minuteman III missile equipped with a single test reentry vehicle launched at 12:27 a.m. Pacific time on Oct. 29 from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. The Minuteman III missile’s reentry vehicle contained test instruments and traveled approximately 4,200 miles to the Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands.

“These operational test launches serve multiple purposes,” said Col. Erik Quigley, Minuteman III Systems director. “First, they are a demonstration of our nuclear launch capability to all potential adversaries. Second, they provide assurance of continued launch capability to any allies that rely on our nuclear forces to support their security. And third, they help validate our models of the Minuteman III fleet to ensure the ICBMs continue to meet stringent nuclear launch requirements.”

The Minuteman III flight tests are conducted under Air Force Global Strike Command‘s Nuclear Weapon System Evaluation Program, as part of the Air Force’s ongoing effort to test weapon systems in training missions and prepare aircrews for future mission requirements. The program demonstrates the operational credibility of the Minuteman III, which is the ground-based leg of the U.S. nuclear triad and a key element of national security for both the United States and its allies.

The nuclear enterprise community, including components from the Air Force, U.S. Strategic Command and the Department of Energy, collects data from these test launches and evaluates the entire spectrum of the launches to determine capability, supportability and accuracy. Everything is included in the evaluation, including selection of the missile to be tested, launch facility used and personnel delivering, maintaining and launching the missile.

“Like previous test launches, this event demonstrated the Air Force’s commitment to the nation’s nuclear enterprise while ensuring the United States’ nuclear deterrent is safe, secure, and effective to deter our adversaries while reassuring our allies and partners,” said Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown, Jr. “We must continue to invest in this viable deterrent, and the Airmen who support this mission, as part of the most responsive leg of our nuclear triad.”

The AFNWC Minuteman III Systems directorate at Hill AFB, Utah, provides engineering and logistics support to AFGSC for an average of four test launches each year. In recent months, they have supported several launches during a busy test schedule.

The launch calendars are built three to five years in advance, and planning for each individual launch begins six months to a year prior to launch. Test launches are not a response or reaction to world events or regional tensions.

For each ICBM test launch, the directorate conducts pre-launch analysis for the launch to determine if all systems are ready or if anomalies may impact the launch from both ground and flight systems perspectives.

It then assists the operational Minuteman III force with the random selection of the missile from the field, provides logistics support for the missile’s transfer to Vandenberg AFB and provides technical support to the 576th Flight Test Squadron during the before, during and after the test launch.

Members of the directorate are on hand at Vandenberg AFB to evaluate systems during the actual launch, including any unusual indications that may impact launch performance or personnel safety.

Finally, the Minuteman III Systems team analyzes the post-launch data to determine if the flight was within the expected parameters for performance. While the current Minuteman III system remains a safe, secure, and effective nuclear capability it faces increasing sustainment challenges as it continues to age.

The Minuteman III missile fleet was fielded in the 1970s, with an initial 10-year service life, and is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. The launch infrastructure system spreads across five states and includes 400 missiles (under the New START Treaty requirements) on alert 24/7, 450 launch facilities and 45 launch control centers, which in some cases date back to the early 1960s.

The AFNWC Minuteman III team manages all of the ICBM’s sustainment activities to ensure the ICBM boosters, launchers and control centers maintain the operational effectiveness for the entire weapon system. Programmed depot maintenance is a key enabler for sustaining the basic infrastructure for the future Ground Based Strategic Deterrent, which will replace Minuteman III. They will also help manage the Minuteman III to GBSD transition starting in the late 2020s.

The GBSD ICBM will meet existing user requirements, while having the adaptability and flexibility to affordably address changing technology and threat environments through 2075. In September, the GBSD Systems directorate, also at Hill AFB, awarded an Engineering and Manufacturing Development contract to Northup Grumman.

The center is responsible for synchronizing all aspects of nuclear materiel management on behalf of Air Force Materiel Command in direct support of AFGSC. Headquartered at Kirtland AFB, the center has about 1,800 personnel assigned to 18 locations worldwide.

Photo of Minuteman III test launch

An Air Force Global Strike Command unarmed Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile launches during an operational test at 12:27 a.m. Pacific Time, Thursday, Oct. 29, 2020, at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. ICBM test launches demonstrate the U.S. nuclear enterprise is safe, secure, effective and ready to defend the United States and its allies. ICBMs provide the U.S. and its allies the necessary deterrent capability to maintain freedom to operate and navigate globally in accordance with international laws and norms. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech Sgt. Patrick Harrower)

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An Air Force Global Strike Command unarmed Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile launches during an operational test at 12:27 Pacific Daylight Time, Oct. 29, 2020, at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. ICBM test launches demonstrate the U.S. nuclear enterprise is safe, secure, effective and ready to defend the United States and its allies. ICBMs provide the U.S. and its allies the necessary deterrent capability to maintain freedom to operate and navigate globally in accordance with international laws and norms. (U.S. Air Force video)

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