Test launch: Air Force routinely tests Minot AFB ICBMs for reliability, accuracy

Submitted Photo An unarmed Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile from Minot Air Force Base launches at Vandenberg AFB, Calif., in this August 2015 Air Force photo. Test launches provide valuable data for a continued safe, secure and effective nuclear deterrent.

MINOT AIR FORCE BASE – A select Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile in the Minot missile field is routinely test launched to verify reliability and accuracy of the ICBM weapon system.

Minot Air Force Base is prepping for a test launch but the date has not been set yet, said Capt. Anastasia Schmidt, chief of the Public Affairs Operations Division at Air Force Global Strike Command at Barksdale AFB, La.

Minot AFB’s 91st Missile Wing with Minuteman III ICBMs in the Minot missile field and the 5th Bomb Wing with its B-52 bombers are units of Global Strike Command.

To prepare for a test launch, Col. Colin Connor, commander of the 91st Missile Wing, said Global Strike Command does a random draw of all the available missiles at Minot to select one to test the reliability of the system. When a missile is selected, he said the missile wing then receives direction to pull that particular missile.

“We’ll start months in advance. We’ll pull that missile out of the field here in Minot and ship it out to Vandenberg (AFB in California),” Connor said.

The components of the missile are shipped to the 576th Test Squadron at Vandenberg where it will be rebuilt. Test launches are part of that squadron’s mission.

“They’ll oversee it and assist with the rebuilding of the missile,” Connor said.

The 576th Flight Test Squadron at Vandenberg is America’s only dedicated ICBM test squadron executing tests that accurately measure the current and future capability of the ICBM force, according to Air Force information.

At Vandenberg the Minot missile will go into a silo in preparation for the test launch.

About 30 people from Minot AFB, mostly maintainers from the missile wing, travel to Vandenberg to prepare the missile for launch.

A contingent of operators are also sent to Vandenberg who will actually monitor the health and status of the missile like they do with missiles in the Minot missile field, Connor said. “Obviously, here we have one capsule monitoring more than one missile. There it’s one capsule monitors the one missile.”

“It’s really a great test of our system for reliability because these missiles will sit out here 24/7,” Connor said

He said every Minuteman III ICBM wing has a test launch about once a year. Minot AFB along with F.E. Warren AFB in Wyoming and Malmstrom AFB in Montana have ICBM wings.

The routine test missile launches are planned well in advance.

The 30th Space Wing at Vandenberg manages the range on the West Coast where various launches are conducted. Commercial satellites are being launched there as well as ICBM launches.

In regard to a test launch Connor said, “It’s a great test to say, ‘OK, we can take this missile and pull it apart here at Minot and reassemble it out there. It’s a great training opportunity for our maintainers to do this. And then you look at it from an operator’s perspective, it’s kind of a once-in-a-life time opportunity to actually operate the system, turn a key and launch this thing.”

He said deterrence is working so missile personnel do not normally have such an opportunity.

“For them it’s a neat opportunity so we’re selective in the operators we send out there. We send the ones that have demonstrated a great capability here, a great performance here and send them there to get that opportunity,” he said.

“We send representatives from all of our missile squadrons – from the 740th, 741st, 742nd – and we also send instructors out there to be part of this and then they can bring that knowledge back and share with our crewmembers here,” Connor added.

When an unarmed Minuteman III ICBM is test launched from Vandenberg, it is launched to the Kwajalein Atoll in the South Pacific. Kwajalein is about 1,600 miles from Guam and more than 2,000 miles from Hawaii or Japan.

The missile range in the Marshall Islands is a remote, secure area established by the U.S. Department of Defense. Its function is to support test and evaluation of Department of Defense missile systems’ programs including the Air Force ICBM development and operational tests, according to information abut that area.

The test launch is tracked and there are measurements all along the way to the landing in the Kwajalein Atoll. This is done to ensure the missile is staying on track and also testing its reliability and the accuracy, Connor said.

“We’re not putting anything dangerous out there but there will be an inert warhead that will come down in the Kwajalein,” he said.

“I’ll tell you we are very good,” he said of the test launches, adding, “We have been very, very successful.”

After an ICMB is pulled from the Minot missile field for a test launch, then Hill AFB at Ogden, Utah, will ship a replacement for the Minot missile field.

“We’ll rebuild that missile out here and we’ll go from there. We work it at Vandenberg but we also work it here to put a replacement in,” Connor said.

Normally a number of Minot AFB personnel from both the missile wing and the 5th Bomb Wing along with local civic leaders are invited to attend a Minot AFB missile test launch at Vandenberg.

The visit to Vandenberg for a test launch gives military members an opportunity to see the importance of what they do at Minot AFB, Connor said.

He said members of the 5th Bomb Wing impact the missile wing’s mission. “We can’t do it without them,” he said.

Connor sometimes is asked where the missiles in the Minot missile field are targeted.

“I think probably the best way I can answer that question is our missiles stand on ready alert to launch at the direction of the president of the United States – to launch against anybody that he deemed an adversary of the United States of America,” he said.

ICBM silo numbers

The new START requirements changed the number of silos containing Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles in North Dakota, Montana and Wyoming missile fields. START stands for Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty.

According to Air Force Global Strike Command information, there are 150 launch facilities (silos) at each of the three operational missile wings – Minot Air Force Base, Malmstrom AFB, Montana, and F.E. Warren AFB, Wyoming, for a total of 450 launch facilities.

Four test facilities are located at Vandenberg AFB, California.

To meet the New START requirements there are a total of 50 empty or nondeployed launch facilities spread between the three wings/bases.

For New START, at least 50 empty launch facilities must be maintained at all times. This keeps the ICBM force at the correct levels to maintain new START central limits, according to a Global Strike Command spokesperson this week.

The missile maintainers with permissions from 20th Air Force attempt to maintain an even distribution of empty silos across the three missile wings. The numbers remain fairly constant, but which particular site is empty can change from day-to-day based on maintenance schedules, needs of the wing, test schedules and pop-up maintenance requirements, the spokesperson said.