For the second time this summer, Vandenberg Air Force Base officials encountered an unexpected problem during a routine missile test launch early Wednesday morning.
About five minutes after launching the Minuteman III — an unarmed intercontinental ballistic missile designed to carry nuclear warheads, military officials destroyed the flying weapon due to an “anomaly” that raised safety concerns. The remains of the weapon came crashing down in an open ocean region in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, just northeast of the missile’s original target in the Marshall Islands.
“At all times public safety is paramount,” Col. Matthew Carroll said in a statement. “We plan for situations like this and everything was executed according to the plan.”
The Minuteman III was launched from an underground silo at 3:01 a.m. Wednesday in a testing mission to assess the reliability and accuracy of the weapon. At 3:06 a.m. controllers sent destruct commands after detecting an unspecified problem with the missile. The missile was originally targeted to the Kwajalein Atoll island chain in the Marshall Islands, about 4,200 miles southwest of the base. But instead, the missile crashed down northeast of Roi-Namur, the northernmost island in the chain. Base officials have not yet said whether they intend to retrieve the pieces of the missile.
One of 450 similar missiles controlled by the Air Force across the western United States, the Minuteman III launched Wednesday was nearly 60 feet tall and capable of speeds of up to 15,000 miles per hour. Each Minuteman III launch costs tens of millions of dollars, according to the Nuclear Peace Age Foundation.
Wednesday’s launch was the second of three planned testing missions from the base this year, following a similar launch on June 22. While the test missile launched in June successfully reached its target in the Marshall Islands, ground control was unexpectedly required to issue the launch command when a communication problem during countdown prevented the airborne control system from launching the weapon.
The base — which typically launches three test missiles per year — plans to launch a third test missile in September. These test launches “demonstrate our nation’s [intercontinental ballistic missile] capability in a very visible way, deterring potential adversaries while reassuring allies,” mission director Col. David Bliesner said in a June statement.
But for Rick Wayman, who is Director of Programs at the Nuclear Peace Age Foundation in Santa Barbara, the terminated testing mission reaffirmed his belief in the unreliability of the nuclear missile program.
“However many millions of dollars we spend on military hardware, it can fail,” Wayman said, adding that he doesn’t believe the weapons keep Americans safe “even if [the missions] are 100 percent going according to plan.”