USAF tests unarmed Minuteman III missile at Vandenberg AFB

By Sara Sirota / October 29, 2020 at 12:30 PM

The military today launched an unarmed Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile from Vandenberg Air Force Base, CA, to verify the nuclear weapon's readiness and accuracy.

The routine launch featured an ICBM with a single reentry vehicle that contained test instruments and traveled about 4,200 miles to the Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands, according to an Air Force press release.

"These operational test launches serve multiple purposes," Col. Erik Quigley, Minuteman III systems director, said in the notice.

"First, they are a demonstration of our nuclear launch capability to all potential adversaries," he explained. "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 system is decades-old and the Air Force is currently developing a replacement with prime contractor Northrop Grumman as the legacy weapon nears the end of its service life.

The future Ground Based Strategic Deterrent is on track to begin fielding in the late 2020s. It has a roughly 50-year, life-cycle cost estimate of $264 billion, according to the Pentagon’s latest assessment.

The expensive project has bipartisan support in Congress, though some Democrats, particularly on the House Armed Services Committee, have sought to postpone or even remove funding from the Air Force's GBSD budget. Arms control advocates consistently describe ICBMs as the least valuable leg of the military's nuclear triad.

In today's press release, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Brown called for steady support of the ICBM mission, stating, "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."