Vandenberg launch, planned for this week, had been delayed after labor dispute

This image provided by Vandenberg Air Force Base shows the launch of the Global Strike Command Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile in 2013 at Vandenberg Air Force Base.
This image provided by Vandenberg Air Force Base shows the launch of the Global Strike Command Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile in 2013 at Vandenberg Air Force Base. The Associated Press

An unarmed Minuteman III missile test launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base is planned for this week but had been delayed a day because of a labor dispute, military officials said late Monday.

The weapon, with a mock warhead equipped to collect data, is scheduled to launch between 11:39 p.m. Wednesday and 5:39 a.m. Thursday.

Minuteman III missile tests occur from underground silos on the northern section of Vandenberg.

Initially, the mission was planned for late Tuesday night or early Wednesday morning.

“The 30th Space Wing and launch customer team has elected to move the test launch to the second of three available launch dates to provide opportunity for additional preparation in light of the potential labor dispute,” Vandenberg officials said when they announced the delay late Monday.

The spat involves 13 employees who work for RGNext and had been non-union workers for decades but recently decided to organize, according to Lynn Swenson, coordinator for Teamsters Local 986.

After rejecting the latest contract offer from the firm, the employees voted Monday to go out on strike. They are set to picket as soon as Tuesday morning, Swenson said.

The dispute centers on wages, benefits and other issues, Swenson said.

With as many as 40 years of experience, the affected employees perform unique tasks for planning and formulating launch scenarios, Swenson said.

While a small number of employees are involved in the dispute, she said, they play a vital role during launch operations.

“I refer to them as the tip of the spear,” Swenson said.

RGNext, a joint venture of Raytheon Company and General Dynamics Information Technology, took over the contract in 2015 to provide operations and maintenance responsibilities for the Western Range at Vandenberg plus the Eastern Range at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, under the same contract for the first time.

Workers on the Western and Eastern ranges operate equipment that monitors rocket launches and missile tests from California and Florida to ensure the vehicles remain on the planned flight path and don’t stray over populated areas.

A larger group of Teamsters members who work for RGNext are covered under a separate bargaining agreement, Swenson said.

The ICBM test launch program validates and verifies the effectiveness, readiness and accuracy of the weapon system, according to Air Force Global Strike Command, which oversees the nuclear arsenal.

The weapon is expected to travel to a predetermined target in the Kwajalein Atoll, approximately 4,200 miles southwest of Vandenberg.

“Team Vandenberg is poised to provide safe launch operations in support of Air Force Global Strike Command’s important demonstration of our nation’s secure and effective combat ready ICBM force,” said Col. Chris Moss, 30th Space Wing commander, who also will serve as the launch decision authority to give the final OK for the mission to occur.

“The tremendous teamwork between the 30th Space Wing and Air Force Global Strike Command is apparent each time we launch a Minuteman III missile,” Moss said.

Missile tests typically target departure early in the launch window, but technical glitches or unfavorable weather can cause delays.

The 576th Flight Test Squadron, which is based at Vandenberg, is responsible for installing tracking, telemetry and command-destruct systems on the missiles, which collect data and ensure safety requirements are met.

A task force made up of missile maintainers and operators from Minot Air Force Base, North Dakota, traveled to Vandenberg to help prep for the test.

Minot AFB is one of three missile bases with crew members on alert 24 hours a day, year-round, overseeing the nation’s ICBM alert forces, reportedly numbering 450.

Word of this week’s Minuteman test prompted David Krieger, Nuclear Age Peace Foundation president and founder, to say on Twitter, “US plans to conduct #nuclear-capable ICBM test early next week from Vandenberg AFB. Shall we sanction ourselves?”

The Santa Barbara-based group works toward creating a world free of nuclear weapons and notes that nine nations have 15,000 weapons.

The tweet refers to sanctions the Trump administration levied against Iran after the country conducted a missile test last week.

The Minuteman test is in line to become the second launch of 2017 from Vandenberg, following the flight of the Falcon 9 rocket with the first set of second-generation Iridium satellites.

Noozhawk.com is a Santa Barbara-based news website. North County editor Janene Scully can be reached at jscully@noozhawk.com. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.