While the U.S. test firing unarmed, nuclear-capable intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) is not rare – this was the fourth test this year – launching one now with three dummy warheads does send a message. Overnight the U.S. Air Force (USAF) Global Strike Command (AFGSC) conducted a test launch of an LGM-30G Minuteman III ICBM with an unusual load of three unarmed reentry vehicles.
Significantly, reported The Drive, the ICBM was actually fired by a joint crew of Air Force and Navy personnel onboard an E-6B Mercury airborne command post aircraft using a specialized launch control system called the Airborne Launch Control System (ALCS).
In a statement, U.S. Strategic Command stated that, “The ICBM’s three reentry vehicles traveled approximately 4,200 miles to the Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands,” adding that, “The test demonstrates that the United States’ nuclear deterrent is safe, secure, reliable and effective to deter twenty-first century threats and reassure our allies. Test launches are not a response or reaction to world events or regional tensions.”
Reportedly scheduled months in advance, this launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California – despite the disclaimer – still appears designed to send a clear signal to various potential nuclear-armed adversaries, including Russia, China, and North Korea.
America’s operational Minuteman III missiles are all currently armed with only a single warhead to conform to the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) with Russia.
The Trump Administration has been focused on getting Russia to agree to limits on various novel strategic systems, including nuclear-armed hypersonic missiles, as well as nuclear-powered and nuclear-armed cruise missiles and long-range torpedoes, as part of discussions about extending the agreement. The U.S. government also wants China to join this strategic arms control regime, which authorities in Beijing have repeatedly expressed little desire to do…
As such, it’s very possible that this could have acted as both a test of the weapon’s latent MIRV [Multiple Independently Targeted Re-entry Vehicles] capabilities and as a message to Russia that without New START, America’s ground-based nuclear deterrent could become exponentially more destructive.
If the New START negotiations were to fail, The Drive explains, the United States would then be free to again MIRV all its Minuteman III missiles and develop the same MIRV capability for its new planned Ground Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD).
This could essentially triple the number of U.S. nuclear warheads overnight. That should give pause to all of America’s nuclear-armed potential enemies – not just Russia.