Vandenberg to test launch unarmed Minuteman III missile weapon system

This image provided by Vandenberg Air Force Base shows a launch of the Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile in September 2013.
This image provided by Vandenberg Air Force Base shows a launch of the Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile in September 2013. U.S. Air Force/Associated Press

An unarmed Minuteman III missile test launch is planned for early Wednesday morning from an underground silo on the northern tip of Vandenberg Air Force Base, military officials said.

The test launch of the three-stage weapon system, equipped with a mock warhead, is planned for 12:01 a.m. Wednesday. However, the military has penciled in a six-hour window, until 6:01 a.m., for the test to occur. Upon blastoff, the missile will fly about 4,200 miles to a predetermined target, typically near the Kwajalein Atoll in the central Pacific Ocean.

While the test is planned amid heightened tensions between the United States and North Korea, the Minuteman missions from Vandenberg typically are scheduled months and years beforehand. Air Force Global Strike Command routinely conducts ICBM test launches from Vandenberg in northern Santa Barbara County to validate and verify the effectiveness, readiness and accuracy of the weapon system.

“Team V is once again ready to work with Air Force Global Strike Command to successfully launch another Minuteman III missile,” said Col. Chris Moss, 30th Space Wing commander and the launch decision authority.

“These Minuteman launches are essential to verify the status of our national nuclear force and to demonstrate our national nuclear capabilities,” Moss added.

Vandenberg officials said on-base viewing for those with regular access is at the Ronald Reagan Memorial Observation Site. For those without base access, a viewing site is located on Corral Road. The roar and thin yellow contrails from Vandenberg launches can usually be heard and seen in San Luis Obispo County, especially the South County, depending on weather and the rocket’s trajectory.

Countdowns for test launches of intercontinental ballistic missiles can encounter delays because of technical troubles or unfavorable weather at Vandenberg or downrange.

The Air Force has about 450 Minuteman III ICBMs on alert in and around F.E. Warren AFB in Wyoming; Malmstrom AFB in Montana; and Minot AFB in North Dakota.

The Minuteman test comes weeks after Gen. John Hyten, leader of U.S. Strategic Command, spoke about the United States nuclear arsenal — it includes sea-launched and air-launched components — to the Senate Armed Services Committee. In his speech, Hyten noted the Minuteman system remains operational “far beyond its intended lifespan.”

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