KIRTLAND AFB ― 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 a continued safe, secure and effective nuclear deterrent.
An unarmed LGM-30G Minuteman III missile equipped with three test reentry vehicles was launched Feb. 8 during an operational test flight. The Minuteman III reentry vehicles contained test instrumentation and traveled about 4,200 miles to the Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands.
The flight tests are conducted under Air Force Global Strike Command’s Nuclear Weapon System Evaluation Program, 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, launch facility used and personnel delivering, maintaining and launching the missile.
The AFNWC’s Intercontinental Ballistic Missile Systems Directorate at Hill AFB, Utah, provides engineering and logistics support to AFGSC for an average of four test launches each year, with the next launch scheduled later this month. These activities include:
- Pre-launch analysis, determining if all systems are ready or if anomalies may impact the launch from both ground and flight systems perspectives
- Systematic review of all launch systems at predetermined intervals before the launch
- Evaluation of system functions during the actual launch, including any unusual indications that may impact launch performance or personnel safety
- Complete post-launch analysis to determine if flight was within expected parameters for performance and scoring, including a final flight test report
In addition to managing logistics for the test missile, AFNWC assists the operational Minuteman III force with the random selection of the missile from the field and provides technical support to the 576th Flight Test Squadron at Vandenberg AFB, California, during test build-up and launch.
“These operational test launches serve multiple purposes,” said Col. Scott Jones, AFNWC’s ICBM 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. Third, these launches help validate our models of the Minuteman III fleet to ensure they continue to meet stringent nuclear launch requirements.”
The Minuteman III missile fleet was fielded in the 1970s, with an initial 10-year service life. The launch infrastructure system, which includes 450 launchers (with about 400 fielded missiles under the New START Treaty requirements) and 45 launch control centers spread across five states, dates back to the early 1960s. While the current Minuteman III system remains a safe, secure, and effective nuclear capability, according to Jones, it faces increasing sustainment challenges as it continues to age.
His directorate manages all MMIII sustainment activities, including the recent deployment of Programmed Depot Maintenance, a standard Air Force process that had not been used for the Minuteman III systems until October 2016. When the New START Treaty went into force in 2011, the number of silos with a missile installed was reduced from 450 to 400. Jones said this opened up an opportunity to apply more strenuous and advanced maintenance to the 50 operational, but empty, sites.
“This PDM effort supports boosters, launchers and control centers as an integral effort to maintain the operational effectiveness of the weapon system and is a key enabler to sustaining the basic infrastructure for Ground Based Strategic Deterrent, which will replace Minuteman III sometime in the future,” Jones said. ”The GBSD will meet existing user requirements, while having the adaptability and flexibility to affordably address changing technology and threat environments through 2075.”
In August, the GBSD program started the technology maturation and risk reduction phase of its acquisition effort and is projected to deploy in the late 2020s.
The AFNWC 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 1,900 personnel assigned to 17 locations worldwide, with about 600 at Hill AFB who deliver, sustain and support ICBM nuclear weapon systems.