U.S. Air Force successfully launched unarmed Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile

Screenshots from a video that shows the Minuteman III missile being test launched from the Vandenberg Space Force Base in California on June 4, 2024. U.S. Space Force video by Senior Airman Kadielle Shaw

The United States launched an unarmed intercontinental ballistic missile from the Vandenberg Space Force Base in California early Tuesday morning — the first of two test launches scheduled for this week. The Air Force Global Strike Command shared video and images of the missile, Minuteman III, as it rocketed up and left a burning trail of smoke and flames through the sky north of Santa Barbara.

This test, part of a series conducted several times a year, aimed to assess the safety, reliability, and combat effectiveness of the U.S. nuclear deterrent forces. The launch was observed and reported by various media outlets and organizations, with some viewing it as a routine test and others criticizing it as an irresponsible escalation of nuclear threats, particularly in light of heightened U.S.-Russia tensions. A second test launch is scheduled for June 6.

The test at 12:56 a.m. PT was carried out by a joint team of airmen from the Air Force Global Strike Command, a branch of the U.S. Air Force responsible for nuclear deterrence, and was supported by Space Force guardians, the command said in an announcement. The announcement noted that the test launch program is designed “to validate and verify the safety, security, effectiveness, and readiness of the weapon system.” The Minuteman III was launched with a reentry vehicle.

“This test launch marks the start of a remarkable week for our Guardians and Airmen at Vandenberg, with two test launches scheduled from the Western Range,” said Col. Bryan Titus, vice commander of the Space Launch Delta 30 military unit, which manages space launch operations on the West Coast, in a statement. “These tests hold immense significance, not only for our nation’s defense, but also serve as a pivotal moment in showcasing the exceptional capabilities and expertise of our dedicated team.”

An announcement by the public affairs team for Space Launch Delta 30 reiterated that it is routine to test launch unarmed intercontinental ballistic missiles like Minuteman III, a model that first became operational in the 1970s, according to the Air Force Nuclear Weapons Center. There are currently 400 Minuteman III missiles at various Air Force bases across the country, which the military wing describes as a strategic weapons system meant to serve as a “reliable and effective nuclear deterrent.”

Similar tests have been carried out more than 300 times before, said Space Launch Delta 30, adding that they are “not the result of current world events” but instead intend “to demonstrate that the United States’ nuclear deterrent is safe, secure, reliable and effective to deter 21st century threats and reassure our allies.”

Normally, test flights for the Minuteman III out of Vandenberg end with the missile’s reentry vehicle traveling more than 4,000 miles across the Pacific Ocean, from coastal California to Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands. During another routine test launch last November, a Minuteman III missile launched from the same base was intentionally destroyed over the Pacific because of “an anomaly,” the Air Force Global Strike Command said in a statement at the time.

“An anomaly is any unexpected event during the test,” the command said in that statement. “Since anomalies may arise from many factors relating to the operational platform itself, or the test equipment, careful analysis is needed to identify the cause.”

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