In one of their regularly scheduled quarterly test launches, the 576th Flight Test Squadron at Vandenberg Air Force Base successfully launched a Minuteman III inter-continental ballistic missile this morning at 1:01 a.m. The missile, composed of components from the three bases where Minuteman III missiles are kept on standby-Minot AFB, Malmstrom AFB, and F.E. Warren AFB-the test missile was assembled on site by technicians at Vandenberg over the past month to prepare it for the launch. According to Vandenberg’s public affairs office, the purpose of the tests is to ensure that all components are functional, and that the firing system is operational.
It takes about 30 minutes for the missile to reach its target, which in this case was an area of water near an uninhabited atoll in the Marshall Islands, in the South Pacific Ocean. Second Lieutenant Raymond Geoffroy, from Vandenberg’s public affairs office, stated that the 30th Space Wing is responsible for keeping the range-the area over which the missile flies-clear of ships and other potential hazards while the launch is taking place. This is because the rocket, having three stages, jettisons the used up stages into the ocean after the completion of each stage. Although the tests are conducted under ideal weather conditions to enable adequate tracking and proper function of sensors and data collection equipment, they are reportedly ready for use under any conditions.
The Minuteman III ICBM is a long range, nuclear capable solid fuel cruise missile that is approximately 50 feet long. Deployed since 1970, there are currently 500 Minuteman III ICBMs in service in the US nuclear arsenal, with 200 at Malmstrom AFB, 150 at Minot AFB, and 150 at F.E. Warren AFB. These are maintained in conjunction with a fleet of other, shorter range cruise missiles, submarine-based Trident cruise missiles, and air-launched missiles that are deployed with two squadrons of B-52H long range bombers.
According to Vandenberg’s public affairs office, about 10 to 12 launches per year occur at Vandenberg, the majority of which are civilian launches. “They’re basically just using our real estate for launches,” said Geoffroy. “We’re responsible for range safety.” Many of the launches are carried out to put satellites in orbit, whether for communications companies or defense contractors.