What’s Behind US Air Force’s Sudden Minuteman III Test Launch Plans?

Despite rising tensions with Russia, the US Air Force assures its upcoming Minuteman III tests are pre-scheduled, not a sudden response. These routine launches aim to verify the reliability of this aging system, crucial for US deterrence.

What’s Behind US Air Force’s Sudden Minuteman III Test Launch Plans? 1

The US Air Force’s Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles will be tested twice this week at Vandenberg Space Force Base by US Air Force Global Strike Command. The tests coincide with intense tensions between NATO and Russia over the growing proxy conflict in Ukraine, but military observers said it’s probably not something to get too worked up about.

Two Minuteman III ICBMs without weapons are scheduled to be launched on June 4 and 6, according to US Space Forces Command.

The US military’s strategic nuclear forces have been using old, largely dependable missiles since the 1970s. These are being replaced by the Sentinel ICBM program, which is anticipated to begin operations in the middle of the 2030s. Minuteman III will continue to be the cornerstone and mainstay of US ground-based strategic deterrence in the interim.

The scheduled tests “have nothing to do with world events,” according to Col. Chris Cruz, commander of the 377th Test and Evaluation Group, who made the announcement on May 30, the eve of the Biden administration’s risky decision to lift formal restrictions on Ukrainian strikes deep inside Russia using long-range missiles acquired from NATO.

The test scheduled for June 4 was originally scheduled for February, but it was delayed due to an unidentified “anomaly” that the Air Force had to “safely terminate” during a Minuteman III test launch in November.

Cruz claims that since the June 6 launch was already planned for that day, “it made sense to conduct both of them while all the necessary personnel were on site.”

Together, the tests are meant “to demonstrate the readiness of US nuclear forces and provide confidence in the lethality and effectiveness of the nation’s nuclear deterrent,” according to Global Strike Command.

Reliable But Aging Missile

Even though the Minuteman III missile system is getting older, retired US Army Colonel and expert on foreign and military issues Earl Rasmussen said that the system is still “very reliable” and that its “launch facilities could use more attention.”

When asked if the impending missile tests were related to the situation in Ukraine, Rasmussen stated that he thought there really “should be nothing read into it based on current events.”

“There have been over 300 [Minuteman III] test launches over the last 50 years. So it’s something that happens periodically and it’s a routine training type exercise. Nothing special and I wouldn’t read into this at all,” the observer said.

The seasoned former soldier believes that several things could have gone wrong in regards to the test that was unsuccessful in November.

“The Minuteman is a three-stage type rocket system. The first stage, when it released, apparently was not in the trajectory that was projected, and subsequently they took the effort to terminate the flight for safety reasons,” Rasmussen recalled. The reason for the failure “could be numerous things,” in his view. “You could be looking at aging rocket fuel, potentially, or [Global Strike Command] trying out something new, perhaps a trajectory as well.”

Veteran Russian military journalist Aleksei Borzenko, deputy chief editor of Literary Russia, agrees with Rasmussen’s analysis in general.

“I think the US is conducting an audit of its nuclear warhead-launching missiles because they have not conducted any tests for a very long time,” Borzenko told, recalling that Russia tests its strategic missiles on average once or twice a year to ensure readiness.

“The Americans have been sitting on what they have,” the observer said, referencing the Minuteman III’s status as an aging system. “Many of these missiles are very old, with these developments dating back to the 70s and 80s. Therefore, they just want to test this missile and gradually modernize their nuclear forces with new missiles. The fact is that missile technology today is one of the most difficult areas when it comes to improving one’s army.”

“The technologies must be produced. This is very, very complex technology. Many tasks are involved in a variety of parallel directions in the production of these missiles, their guidance systems, tied to satellites, equipment to control the rocket’s flight, and a lot of auxiliary things,” Borzenko stressed.

When asked if Russia should be concerned about the launches, Borzenko replied that it should be, at least in part, because it indicates that the Americans have gone back to a field they haven’t played in a while and started modernizing their arsenal in order to “put their nuclear missiles in order.”

That said, Borzenko emphasized that at the present stage, US strategic rocketry is lagging behind Russia, “because we have been working in this area for a long time, and have had no failures, with all the latest launches showing that our rockets work perfectly.”

Dmitry Stefanovich of the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of World Economy and International Relations in Moscow speculates that China, not Moscow, may be the intended recipient of the entire exercise.

“It is possible that one of these two test launches will feature multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles. That is, as you know, Minuteman can carry either one or three warheads – it usually has one but it may carry three. And if this is the deal, it may be a signal to China and Russia that the United States can increase the number of deployed warheads by adding this extra payload to the ballistic missiles,” he noted.

According to a recent report by GreatGameIndia, China’s secretive spaceplane, Shenlong, ejected a mysterious object into Earth’s orbit on May 24. The incident has prompted the US Space Force to track the object, raising concerns about its purpose and potential implications.

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