Dozens stood closely together, some wrapped in blankets and others in constant motion, with all eyes to the sky.
Some 150 base personnel convened at the Ronald Reagan Memorial Viewing Site on the northern portion of Vandenberg Air Force Base late Tuesday and braved the cold, as the North County base located some 10 miles from the city of Lompoc hosted its first launch as a member of the United States Space Force. At approximately 12:33 a.m. local time, following a short, unidentified delay, an unarmed Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile roared from its silo and ascended towards the moon.
Stationed just mere miles from the launch pad, the group watched on as the missile burst through the sky, leaving only a trace of smoke in front of the moon’s shadow. After detaching, the ICBM’s re-entry vehicle traveled approximately 4,200 miles to the Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands.
“These test launches verify the accuracy and reliability of the ICBM weapon system, providing valuable data to ensure a continued safe, secure and effective nuclear deterrent. Test launches are not a response or reaction to world events or regional tensions,” read a statement issued by Air Force Global Strike Command, which conducted the launch.
The test was considered a developmental test launch, in that it used a spare missile from storage to validate flight worthiness of new or replacement components in an “as-near-to-operational environment” as possible, officials said.
Known as Flight Test Unit 2, this was the second of four FTUs scheduled over the next several years to validate replacement components that will ensure continued Minuteman III viability. FTU 1 occurred last February.
“Developmental testing provides valuable data to Air Force Global Strike Command and Air Force Nuclear Weapons Center for both modernization and sustainment of the ICBM weapon system,” Col. Omar Colbert, 576th Flight Test Squadron Commander, said in a statement. “The Minuteman III is aging, and modernization programs such as this are essential in ensuring that our Nation has a reliable nuclear deterrent through the rest of its lifespan and beyond. Most importantly, this visible indicator of our National security capabilities serves to assure our partners and dissuade potential aggressors.”
Airmen from the 341st Missile Wing at Malmstrom AFB, 90th Missile Wing at F.E. Warren AFB, and 91st Missile Wing at Minot, were selected for the task force to support the test launch. The three missile bases have crew members standing alert 24 hours a day, year-round, overseeing the nation’s ICBM alert forces.
“It’s been an incredible opportunity for the combined Task Force of combat crew and maintenance members from F.E. Warren, Minot and Malmstrom AFB to partner with the professionals from the 576th Flight Test Squadron and 30th Space Wing,” Maj. Christopher Crommie, Task Force Commander said in a statement. “I am extremely proud of the team’s hard work, professionalism and dedication to accomplish a unique and important mission to prepare the ICBM for test and monitor the sortie up until test execution. The attention given to every task accomplished here reflects the precision and professionalism they – and our fellow Airmen up north – bring every day to ensure the success of our mission out in the missile fields.”
Data collected from test launches is used for continuing force development evaluation. The ICBM test launch program demonstrates the operational capability of the missile and ensure the U.S. is able to maintain “a strong, credible nuclear deterrent as a key element of U.S. national security and the security of U.S. allies and partners,” officials said.
Vandenberg’s 30th Space Wing provided critical technical capabilities in support of the launch. Col Kris Barcomb, 30th Operations Group commander, was the launch decision authority.
“We are very proud to have accomplished this operation with our long-standing mission partner, Air Force Global Strike Command,” Col. Barcomb said in a statement. “We look forward to building on this launch as we continue to provide robust, safe and reliable capabilities critical to the testing and evaluation of the ICBM program, and many space and range programs to come.”
Wednesday’s launch may be a sign of future endeavors, as 30th Space Wing Commander Col. Anthony Mastalir said he sees Vandenberg Airmen leading the next generation of space lift and range capabilities.
“Our Airmen remain laser-focused on the flawless execution of our launch and range missions,” Col. Mastalir said in a statement. “I am extremely proud of the continued collaboration between the 30th Space Wing and the 576th Flight Test Squadron, culminating in another successful demonstration of our steadfast commitment to mission success.”
The launch calendars are built three to five years in advance, with planning for each individual launch beginning roughly six months to a year prior to launch.