Air Force and Navy service members aboard an airplane on Tuesday remotely launched a Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile with three unarmed warheads from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.
“A joint team of Air Force Global Strike Command Airmen and Navy sailors launched an unarmed Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile equipped with three test reentry vehicles from aboard the Airborne Launch Control System at 12:21 a.m. Pacific Time Aug. 4,” according to an announcement from Air Force Global Strike Command. The Airborne Launch Control System is a Navy-owned Boeing [BA] E-6 aircraft.
According to the statement, members of the Air Force’s 625th Strategic Operations Squadron, based in Offutt Air Force Base, Neb., launched the test warheads on a 4,200-mile parabolic ride to the Kwajalein Atoll.
The Air Force’s Vandenberg-based 567 Flight Test Squadron also supported the launch, standing in for the 90th Missile Wing, members of which were not permitted to travel to California from F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming due to “current COVID-19 travel restrictions,” the service stated.
Due to restrictions of the U.S.-Russian New START nuclear-arms control treaty, the United States does not deploy Minuteman III missiles with more than one warhead. However, the Air Force can load a Minuteman III with multiple W78 warheads, and would be free to legally do so,if the treaty lapses after February 2021. To prevent that, the U.S. and Russian presidents must agree to a five-year extension before then.
The services launched the missiles only days before the 75th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, Japan, in the final days of World War II. Test launches are typically scheduled months ahead of time, taking into consideration the needs of the programs for which missiles and related systems are tested, and the requirements of other range users, could be other military branches, or civilian agencies conducting space launches with time-sensitive windows.
The launch took place the same week that Marshall Billingslea — whose nomination as undersecretary of state for arms control and international security the Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved last week on a razor-thin party-line without the support of all 12 GOPers on the panel — posted photos of Air Force service members loading up a Minuteman III payload bus with multiple reentry vehicles.
The hard-line Billingslea, whose support of interrogation techniques now considered torture has dogged his nomination in the Senate, is the Trump administration’s lead negotiator for nuclear arms control. In that capacity, Billingslea runs point for the administration’s high-stakes gambit to replace New START with a trilateral treaty that constrains China’s nuclear arsenal, and not just the arsenals of Washington and Moscow.
China has said it will not join such a treaty.
The Air Force plans to replace the 400-missile Minuteman III fleet starting in 2020 with Ground Based Strategic Deterrent Missiles tipped with W87-0 and W87-1 warheads. The W87-0 would be a variant of the larger of two warheads now used aboard Minuteman III. W87-1 would be a replacement for the W78 that now tips most Minuteman III missiles.
The Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) has said that the next-generation missiles could go into silos with W87-0 warheads first, as the civilian nuclear-weapons agency must make new pits for W87-1 warheads.
The NNSA plans to cast war-ready W87-1 pits at the Los Alamos National Laboratory’s PF-4 plutonium facility, starting in fiscal 2024. The Savannah River Plutonium Processing Facility in Aiken, S.C., would begin casting pits in 2030, making for a total of at least 80 pits a year by 2030 — if the NNSA’s admittedly ambitious schedule to build the Savannah River plant and upgrade PF-4 hold up.
The NNSA’s backup plan is to cast 80 pits a year at Los Alamos.
Northrop Grumman [NOC] expects the Air Force to award it a $10-billion to $15-billion Ground Based Strategic Deterrent Engineering and Manufacturing Development contract in August. Under that deal, Northrop Grumman would develop, manufacture and eventually deploy the new missiles. The Air Force planned to order more than 650 of these intercontinental ballistic missiles, including spares and test articles.