Ready and Resolute: Unarmed Minuteman III Test Bolsters U.S. Nuclear Defense


In the first week of June 2024, Vandenberg Guardians and Airmen will support two critical operational test launches of an Air Force Global Strike Command unarmed Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) off the Vandenberg Test Range. These tests are scheduled for June 4 and June 6, from 12:01 a.m. to 6:01 a.m. Pacific Time from north Vandenberg. The objective of these launches is to demonstrate the readiness and reliability of the United States’ nuclear forces and to instill confidence in the lethality and effectiveness of the nation’s nuclear deterrent.

Importance of ICBM Test Launches

The ICBM test launch program is integral to ensuring the operational readiness and effectiveness of the U.S. nuclear arsenal. According to the Air Force Global Strike Command, these launches validate and verify the performance, readiness, and accuracy of the Minuteman III weapon system. As stated by Col. Mark Shoemaker, Space Launch Delta 30 commander, these test launches are critical to safeguarding national defense and supporting mission partners.

Historical Context and Recent Developments

The Minuteman III has been a cornerstone of America’s strategic deterrent since the 1970s. Despite its age, it remains a reliable system, pending replacement by the forthcoming Sentinel ICBM program, expected to be operational by the mid-2030s. These scheduled tests are routine and were planned well in advance, as emphasized by Col. Chris Cruise, 377th Test and Evaluation Group commander, to ensure they are not misinterpreted as responses to current global events.

Previous Launch Delays and Safety Measures

A prior test scheduled for February 2024 was postponed due to necessary repairs at the Reagan Test Site. The summer test launches were already on the calendar, making it practical to conduct both while the required personnel were present. The November 2023 test was terminated due to an unspecified anomaly, underscoring the importance of these assessments in maintaining the integrity and safety of the missile systems.

International Notifications and Compliance

In line with standard protocols, the United States provided pre-launch notifications through the Hague Code of Conduct and informed the Russian government, adhering to existing bilateral obligations. These measures ensure transparency and reduce the risk of misinterpretation or escalation due to the launches.

Reliability of the Minuteman III Missile System

Despite its age, the Minuteman III is considered highly reliable. Retired U.S. Army Colonel Earl Rasmussen highlighted that over 300 test launches have been conducted over the past five decades, signifying its role in routine training and system validation. The recent anomaly in November’s test is not uncommon for such complex systems, with potential issues ranging from aging rocket fuel to trajectory adjustments.

Image : Minuteman III – U.S. Nuclear Defense – copyright

Perspectives from Military Experts

U.S. and Russian Views on ICBM Testing

Military experts from both the U.S. and Russia generally view these tests as standard operational procedures rather than provocative actions. Aleksei Borzenko, a veteran Russian military journalist, noted that the U.S. is likely auditing its nuclear arsenal, given the long intervals between recent tests. He emphasized the complexity of missile technology and the importance of regular testing to ensure system reliability and modernization.

Implications for U.S. and Global Strategic Forces

These tests, while routine, carry significant implications for the U.S. strategic forces and global perceptions. Dmitry Stefanovich from the Moscow-based Institute of World Economy and International Relations suggested that the tests could serve as a signal to both China and Russia regarding the potential for the U.S. to enhance its deployed warhead capabilities by utilizing multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles (MIRVs).

Strategic and Technological Challenges

The Minuteman III system, while reliable, faces challenges due to its age and the evolving technological landscape. The upcoming tests are crucial for identifying and addressing any system deficiencies, ensuring that the U.S. maintains a credible and effective nuclear deterrent. As the U.S. transitions to the Sentinel ICBM program, these tests will also provide valuable data to inform the development and deployment of next-generation missile systems.

Future Prospects for U.S. Nuclear Forces

Looking ahead, the U.S. must continue to balance the maintenance of its existing Minuteman III arsenal with the development and deployment of the Sentinel ICBM. This transition period will require sustained investment in research, development, and testing to ensure that the nation’s nuclear deterrent remains robust and effective.

Global Strategic Stability and Arms Control

These tests also underscore the broader context of global strategic stability and arms control. Regular notifications and transparency measures, such as those adhered to by the U.S., are vital for maintaining trust and reducing the risk of miscalculation among nuclear-armed states. As international tensions fluctuate, maintaining a reliable and transparent testing regime will be essential for promoting stability and preventing escalation.

Technological Advancements and Modernization Efforts

The Minuteman III’s longevity highlights the need for ongoing modernization efforts to keep pace with technological advancements. The Sentinel ICBM program represents a critical component of this modernization strategy, aiming to enhance the U.S. strategic forces’ capabilities and ensure the continued credibility of its nuclear deterrent.

The upcoming Minuteman III test launches from Vandenberg Space Force Base are a vital component of the U.S. strategic forces’ operational readiness and reliability. These routine tests provide critical data for assessing and improving the nation’s nuclear deterrent, while also signaling the U.S.’s commitment to transparency and adherence to international arms control agreements. As the U.S. transitions to the next generation of ICBM systems, these tests will play a key role in ensuring that the nation’s strategic forces remain robust and effective in the face of evolving global threats.

APPENDIX 1 – The LGM-30G Minuteman III: A Cornerstone of Strategic Deterrence

The LGM-30G Minuteman III, an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), represents a pivotal element of the United States’ strategic deterrent forces under the command of the Air Force Global Strike Command. This missile system is part of a long-standing tradition of technological advancement and strategic readiness, ensuring the country’s ability to respond to various threats with swift and decisive action.

The “L” in LGM stands for silo-launched, “G” signifies surface attack, and “M” denotes a guided missile. The number 30 refers to the Minuteman series, with the “G” indicating the current Minuteman III variant. As a strategic weapon system with an intercontinental range, the Minuteman III has been a critical component of the U.S. nuclear triad since its deployment.

Historical Context and Evolution

The Minuteman weapon system was conceived in the late 1950s, during a period of intense geopolitical tension and rapid technological advancement. The deployment of the Minuteman I in the early 1960s marked a significant leap forward in missile technology. Unlike its predecessors, which were slow-reacting and relied on liquid fuel, the Minuteman series utilized solid-propellant rocket motors, providing a quick-reacting, inertially guided, highly survivable component to America’s strategic deterrent program.

From its inception, the Minuteman system was designed to be a revolutionary concept, incorporating significant advances in missile and basing components. The transition from liquid-fueled to solid-propellant ICBMs was a monumental shift, allowing for faster launch times and greater reliability. This evolution continued with the Minuteman III, which has undergone numerous modernization programs to enhance its capabilities.

The Minuteman III was first deployed in June 1970, with production ceasing in December 1978. Despite the cessation of production, the system has remained a critical part of the U.S. strategic arsenal, thanks to continuous upgrades and improvements. These enhancements have included new versions of the missile, expanded targeting options, improved accuracy, and increased survivability.

Strategic Importance and Deployment

Today, the Minuteman III ICBM force consists of 400 missiles deployed across three missile wings: the 90th Missile Wing at F.E. Warren AFB, Wyoming; the 341st Missile Wing at Malmstrom AFB, Montana; and the 91st Missile Wing at Minot AFB, North Dakota. These missiles are housed in hardened silos, designed to withstand potential attacks and ensure the survivability of the force.

The strategic importance of the Minuteman III cannot be overstated. As part of the nuclear triad, which includes land-based ICBMs, submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), and strategic bombers, the Minuteman III provides a critical deterrent capability. Its ability to deliver nuclear warheads across intercontinental distances with high precision ensures that the United States maintains a credible and reliable deterrent against any adversary.

Technical Specifications and Capabilities

The Minuteman III missile system boasts impressive technical specifications and capabilities. The missile is powered by three solid-propellant rocket motors: the first stage ATK refurbished M55A1, the second stage ATK refurbished SR-19, and the third stage ATK refurbished SR-73 Technologies Chemical Systems Division. These stages provide a thrust of 203,158 pounds for the first stage, 60,793 pounds for the second stage, and 35,086 pounds for the third stage.

The missile has a total weight of 79,432 pounds (36,030 kilograms) and a diameter of 5.5 feet (1.67 meters). It can travel over 6,000 miles (5,218 nautical miles) at a speed of approximately 15,000 mph (Mach 23 or 24,000 kph) at burnout. The missile’s ceiling, or maximum altitude, is 700 miles (1,120 kilometers).

The Minuteman III is designed to carry multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles (MIRVs), allowing it to deliver multiple warheads to different targets simultaneously. This capability enhances the missile’s deterrent effect, as it can effectively engage multiple targets across a wide area.

Modernization and Upgrades

The Minuteman III has undergone continuous modernization to ensure its effectiveness in a changing strategic environment. These modernization efforts have focused on various aspects of the missile system, including its guidance, propulsion, and reentry systems.

One of the key modernization programs is the Propulsion Replacement Program (PRP), which refurbishes the missile’s solid-propellant rocket motors to extend their service life. The Guidance Replacement Program (GRP) aims to replace aging guidance systems with new technology, improving the missile’s accuracy and reliability.

Additionally, the Safety Enhanced Reentry Vehicle (SERV) program is designed to replace older warheads with newer, safer models. This program enhances the missile’s overall safety and effectiveness, ensuring that the Minuteman III remains a credible deterrent well into the future.

Command and Control

A variety of communication systems provide the president and secretary of defense with highly reliable, virtually instantaneous direct contact with each launch crew. Should command capability be lost between the launch control center and remote missile launch facilities, specially configured E-6B airborne launch control center aircraft automatically assume command and control of the isolated missile or missiles. Fully qualified airborne missile combat crews aboard airborne launch control center aircraft would execute the president’s orders.

This robust command and control structure ensures that the Minuteman III can be launched under any circumstances, maintaining a credible deterrent even in the face of significant disruptions.

Current Status and Future Prospects

As of today, the Minuteman III remains a critical component of the U.S. strategic deterrent. The 400 missiles currently in service are maintained at a high state of readiness, with launch crews performing around-the-clock alert in the launch control centers. This continuous state of readiness ensures that the Minuteman III can respond to any threat, providing a reliable and effective deterrent.

Looking ahead, the future of the Minuteman III is closely tied to ongoing modernization efforts and the development of its replacement, the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD). The GBSD program aims to develop a new ICBM system to replace the aging Minuteman III, incorporating the latest advancements in missile technology to enhance the U.S. strategic deterrent.

Data and Projections

The continuous modernization of the Minuteman III and the development of the GBSD highlight the U.S. commitment to maintaining a robust and credible nuclear deterrent. According to recent budget estimates, the modernization and sustainment of the Minuteman III are expected to cost approximately $7 billion over the next decade. This investment includes upgrades to the missile’s guidance, propulsion, and reentry systems, as well as improvements to the command and control infrastructure.

The GBSD program, on the other hand, is projected to cost around $100 billion over its lifecycle, including research and development, procurement, and sustainment. This significant investment underscores the importance of the ICBM force in the U.S. strategic deterrent and the need to ensure its continued effectiveness in the face of evolving threats.

The LGM-30G Minuteman III has been a cornerstone of the U.S. strategic deterrent for over five decades. Its evolution from the Minuteman I to the current Minuteman III variant reflects a continuous commitment to technological advancement and strategic readiness. With ongoing modernization efforts and the development of the GBSD, the United States is well-positioned to maintain a credible and effective nuclear deterrent for the foreseeable future.

The Minuteman III’s impressive capabilities, robust command and control infrastructure, and continuous state of readiness ensure that it remains a critical component of the U.S. nuclear triad. As geopolitical tensions continue to evolve, the Minuteman III will play a vital role in maintaining global stability and deterring potential adversaries from challenging the security and interests of the United States.

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