Updated June 8th, 2024 at 13:10 IST

U.S. Successfully Tests Minuteman III Missiles, Asserts Strategic Nuclear Readiness

These tests, crucial for national defense, showcase the readiness and reliability of the Minuteman III system, which has been operational since the early 1970s.

Reported by: Yuvraj Tyagi
Minuteman III Missiles | Image:United States Strategic Command
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California: The U.S. military conducted two successful test launches of unarmed Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles this week, asserting that the tests were not influenced by current global events. These tests, executed by both the Air Force and Space Force, took place on June 4 and June 6 from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California, as reported by the Air Force Global Strike Command in its news releases. This command is responsible for managing two of the three legs of the United States’ nuclear triad, which comprises land-based, submarine-launched, and bomber-launched nuclear weapons.  

A spokesperson for the command confirmed the success of both tests, stating, “The U.S. nuclear enterprise is the cornerstone of security for our allies and partners across the globe.” Col. Chris Cruise, the head of the 377th Test and Evaluation Group, emphasized the importance of these tests, saying, “Today’s test launch is just one example of how our nation’s ICBMs, and the professional Airmen who maintain and operate them, demonstrate the readiness and reliability of the weapon system. It showcases our commitment to deterrence as we stand on continuous alert, 24/7/365.”  

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Strategic Significance of the Minuteman III  

The Minuteman III ICBM system first became operational in the early 1970s and was originally intended to serve for about a decade. Despite its age, this strategic weapon system continues to play a critical role in national defence, with missiles dispersed in hardened silos connected to an underground launch control centre through a network of hardened cables. Launch crews, consisting of two officers, maintain around-the-clock alert status in the launch centre, ensuring constant readiness.

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Highly reliable communication systems provide the president and the secretary of defence with instantaneous direct contact with each launch crew. In the event of a communication breakdown between the launch control centre and remote missile launch facilities, specially configured E-6B airborne launch control centre aircraft automatically take command. Fully qualified airborne missile combat crews aboard these aircraft would then execute the president's orders, ensuring the continuity of command and control.  

Modernization and Future Prospects  

The reentry vehicle of each missile travelled approximately 4,200 miles to the Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Defense Test Site on the Kwajalein Atoll in the Republic of the Marshall Islands. These reentry vehicles, designed to detach from the missile, arc through space, and reenter Earth's atmosphere, demonstrate the enduring capabilities of the Minuteman III system. The Minuteman III ICBM will remain in use until the 2030s, according to a statement by Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Ala., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee.  

In recent developments, the Air Force had to intentionally destroy an unarmed ICBM earlier in the month due to an anomaly during a test. This incident highlighted the ageing nature of the Minuteman III system and the necessity for modernization. “We must modernize our ageing nuclear deterrent and replace the Minuteman III missile — as well as the rest of our nuclear enterprise — with modern systems,” Rogers emphasized, reflecting the urgency of upgrading the nation's nuclear capabilities.  

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The Air Force plans to field its next-generation ICBM, known as the Sentinel, although the program has encountered delays and cost overruns. The first test flight of the Sentinel, initially scheduled for earlier, is now expected in February 2026, as detailed in the Air Force’s budget documents. Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Rep. John Garamendi of California have expressed concerns about the timeline for replacing the Minuteman III, noting inconsistencies in the Air Force’s plans. 

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Published June 8th, 2024 at 13:10 IST