Military News

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Global strike command tests ICBM, bomber capabilities

by Capt. Christopher Mesnard
Air Force Global Strike Command Public Affairs


3/27/2015 - VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- The roar of rocket engines rumbles to life in the early hours of the morning along the California coast. In an instant, a missile longer than a tractor trailer emerges in a blast of smoke and fire, accelerating toward the dark sky, on its journey to a target 700 nautical miles southwest of Guam in the Pacific Ocean.

The launch of an unarmed Minuteman III missile on March 27 rounded off three weeks of operational tests, involving both Air Force Global Strike Command and partner agency personnel and assets, executing three Air Launched Cruise Missile and two Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile tests.

The Department of Defense's nuclear deterrence strategy, built on the foundation of what's known as the nuclear triad, encompasses nuclear capable bombers, intercontinental ballistic missiles and submarine launched ballistic missiles; of which the Air Force oversees and maintains the testing and evaluation programs for bombers and ICBMs.

During the test time frame, three ALCM Nuclear Weapons System Evaluation Program test flights originated out of Minot Air Force Base, North Dakota, followed by two ICBM operational test launches, involving maintenance and operations crews from F. E. Warren AFB, Wyoming, and Malmstrom AFB, Montana.

"The United States' nuclear deterrent forces play a foundational role in guaranteeing international stability at the strategic level, providing assurance to our allies and deterring adversaries alike" said Maj. Gen. Michael E. Fortney, AFGSC Director of Operations. "As the force provider for two legs of the nuclear triad, the Air Force is responsible for ensuring these weapon systems meet reliability checks and operational standards."

Each test was planned and executed individually, allowing multiple teams to exercise their training, but they all integrated into an overarching AFGSC focus to ensure operations, maintenance and support personnel could carry out the tests under a condensed timeline.

"We're confident we know what we're doing day in and out, and we go do it as proficiently as possible," said Senior Airman Jake McBroom 90th Missile Maintenance Squadron cage man, F. E. Warren AFB. "[Our] job is important because it's the first hand for America's nuclear deterrence. We're actually putting these missiles on alert; setting ourselves up for success, by keeping our nation safe."

Proficiency at all levels helps ensure the command's weapons systems remain reliable for operational use.

"Our procedures, our training and everything from start to finish [are] to help us successfully deliver a weapon on target," said Capt. Colin Blouse, 69th Bomb Squadron radar navigator, Minot AFB. "When it comes to testing it's something you want to have controlled well."

The nuclear strike capability of both the B-52 and the Minuteman III serve as critical components for ensuring the nation retains a high standard of security.

The B-52's air-to-air refueling makes it a literal around-the-world standoff strike option, able to use both conventional and nuclear weapons anywhere on the planet and use standoff weaponry to negate contested air space. For such missions, many hours of training and familiarization with the weapons systems are required to achieve peak proficiency.

"We show up and we study the entire process, we get the brief on why we're doing it and how we're going to go about performing it," Blouse said. "After that it's a lot of sitting down and talking through the steps that we're going to perform, because our biggest goal for this is to eliminate human error as best possible."

In addition to the standoff capabilities of the B-52, a key aspect of the bomber is the relative lag time in its ability to deliver a weapon, giving the President flexibility to show force and recall the weapons system as necessary.

"Strategic deterrence, that's part of what the B-52 is meant to do and it's just one of the things the President has available to him," said Capt. Corrine Bird, 5th Operations Support Squadron Nuclear Support Flight commander, Minot AFB. "We can [take off] as a deterrence factor and be recalled, and it comes down to the crew to process [message] traffic from the President to determine if we need to launch or retain our missiles as appropriate."

The Minuteman III, on the other hand, serves as a rapid nuclear response capability with the missiles from the most recent operational test launches reaching their target range near Guam in about 40 minutes. The test launch on March 23 set a new record for the Minuteman III covering a distance of over 6,000 miles, traveling farther than any other ever tested.

"We provide a credible deterrent that has prevented global conflicts from escalating to the scale of WWI and WWII," said 1st Lt. Benjamin May, 490th Missile Squadron Missile Crew commander, Malmstrom AFB. "Since the atom bomb was employed at the end of WWII, there hasn't been a similar conflict with such high casualties, and that's what nuclear weapons provide [to the nation]."

Both ICBM test launches and the three NucWSEPs followed "cradle to grave" formats, meaning the tests incorporated all aspects of what personnel could actually expect to go through if they had to employ one of these weapons systems.

"The testing validates that everything is safe and reliable prior to installing the test equipment," said Staff Sgt. Aaron Ruan, 705th Munitions Squadron maintainer, Minot AFB.

The consistency of these cradle-to-grave tests validates the processes and systems that keep the Air Force's nuclear arsenal ready and reliable.

"There are thousands of people in 20th Air Force who spend 24 hours a day, every day of the year, operating, maintaining, protecting and supporting this weapons system," said Capt. Joe Liles, 576th Flight Test Squadron ICBM Field Test Management chief, Vandenberg AFB. "We have the privilege here [at Vandenberg] of demonstrating the capability of that weapons system physically to the rest of the world. To show the rest of the world that this system works well, and that's all part of the strategic deterrence mission."

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