Hanging Between Past and Future, Missileers Practice for War

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif.—You see the intercontinental ballistic missile before you hear it.

Upon ignition in its underground silo, the horizon blooms bright red-orange, and a ball of light rises west over the Pacific Ocean. A dull roar intensifies as the unarmed nuclear missile jets upward to arc over the moon on its way to the Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands. Brief sparks mark each time a section of the Minuteman III burns up and falls away. A jagged trail of smoke imprints its path across the sky.

The crowd below claps as the missile body separates from its payload, a non-nuclear set of hardware and software used for testing, and disappears into the black. It would splash down more than 4,200 miles away about 30 minutes later.

As the weapons reach 50 years since they were first deployed across the U.S., the Air Force is checking that its more than 400 Minuteman IIIs can still perform. At the same time, the service is looking ahead to the future Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent missiles that will replace Minuteman III and outlast some of the people managing it.

Airmen here test-launched a non-nuclear ICBM at 12:33 a.m. on Feb. 5 to see whether a new fuse in development is working as expected, a test that exemplifies the in-between space the land-based missile enterprise occupies right now.

This week’s test is slightly different from the 576th Flight Test Squadron’s typical assessments, which focus a few times a year on how boosters are performing and get an overall snapshot of a deployed missile’s reliability. Those operational tests pull a weapon from its silo at F.E. Warren Air Force Base, Wyoming, Malmstrom Air Force Base, Montana, or Minot Air Force Base, North Dakota, ship it to the Air Force Nuclear Weapons Center at Hill Air Force Base, Utah, for reconfiguration, then bring it to Vandenberg. 

For developmental tests like this one, Airmen add a non-nuclear, sometimes explosive test payload and other components to gather data on the launch, put it into a silo, and shoot it into the night. The information they glean helps the Air Force tweak any procedures or systems that need it, shapes future parts design, and bolsters U.S. Strategic Command’s war plans.

“We’re looking at, does it go where it’s supposed to? How accurate is the weapon system?” 576th FTS Commander Col. Omar Colbert said. “How reliable is the weapon system? How ready are our test procedures? How ready is the crew to do what they’re called upon to do and how well does everything function?”

An unarmed Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile launches during a developmental test at 12:33 a.m. Pacific Time on Feb. 5, 2020, at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. 30th Space Wing video by Jan Jones.

Instead of taking an in-use missile from a Northern Tier base, the Air Force pulls weapons from its depot at Hill for developmental tests. Those events look at how well a particular new part is working—in this case, a fuse that is being designed for both the Minuteman III and the future GBSD, slated for arrival in fiscal 2029. Current fuses have lasted about three times longer than their planned lifespan.

Jason Yeates, the fuse program’s test manager, said the event would vet its radar system, how the communication system works with the fuse back through the weapon system, and secondary objectives like how it handles temperature variations and vibration. The $2.2 billion fuse program is slated to be ready for use on active missiles starting in 2024—first the Minuteman IIIs that are already in the ground, then the GBSD once it is ready.

It looks like a “conical silver coffee can,” Yeates said, and essentially controls the time it takes for a missile’s warhead to detonate. The fuse is designed by Sandia National Laboratories and will be produced by the National Nuclear Security Administration’s Kansas City National Security Campus in Missouri.

The Air Force works through a test plan set five years in advance that is not tied to geopolitical events, such as, say, President Donald Trump’s Feb. 4 State of the Union address or recent dust-ups with Iran and North Korea. Government entities from the Pentagon to the State Department to the Coast Guard and National Geospatial Intelligence Agency alert the public, maritime vessels, satellite users, aircraft, the Union Pacific Railroad, other countries, and even the International Space Station well in advance of what’s coming.

Launch night itself feels almost like a high school football game. Leadership huddles for a mission brief about four hours before midnight. In the ICBM Launch Support Center, about two dozen people ensure they can communicate with the 30th Space Wing’s Western Range Operations Control Center and run through thick checklists starting around 9 p.m.

Buzzing with anticipation, visitors snack on tortilla chips and brownies in a room off the support center. They sip coffee and hot chocolate on metal bleachers in a far-flung area of the base where everyone gathers to watch the launch. Department of Energy employees, military family members, defense contractors, and Airmen excitedly chatter in the brisk February dark as they await a chance to see the missile they work on every day in action.

Something briefly went wrong that night, pushing the launch back 25 minutes. Officials said that even if they do see an anomaly, it doesn’t necessarily mean the test isn’t a success.

“Oftentimes, when anomalous things happen, they really don’t affect the way the system operates,” Jerry Rogers, a flight test analyst at the squadron, said. “It’s a very robust system, so you can actually have things that go wrong and it’s still able to carry out the mission, just because of the way they designed it in 1968.”

Everyone has their own routine for launch night. Many take the time to rest beforehand. Airmen wear blue T-shirts in a nod to squadron heritage. Some don lucky underwear. They stretch. They pack food to settle in for a shift that could last through breakfast the next morning. Fruit is Colbert’s snack of choice, though he won’t turn down the occasional glazed donut.

Underground in the launch control center, missileers distract themselves with their hobbies until it’s time to work. This week was the first (and possibly only) time the team of two Malmstrom Airmen, tapped to turn the keys, got to put their life’s work into action.

“I just kind of, like, read a book or just put my mind elsewhere,” 1st Lt. Claire Waldo, 12th Missile Squadron missile combat crew commander, said. “If I need to start focusing on something, we have everything that we need to have here in the capsule, so we can start reviewing stuff right away.”

At home in Montana, Waldo and her counterpart, 1st Lt. Mitch Nairn of the 490th Missile Squadron, sit on alert at least eight times a month. This trip is different: because the weapons aren’t live, the missileers have to work through fewer communications and security steps before launch.

The missileers coordinate with a test monitor who acts as their conduit to the Western Range and the other entities involved. Once the control centers work through their checklists and a senior Air Force space official gives the signal to go, the final countdown begins.

“Whenever you’re doing a terminal countdown for a launch, the commander will have hands on this key and this switch and the deputy will have a hand on both switches,” Waldo said. “We use Zulu [Coordinated Universal Time] for everything in missiles. That way there’s no misunderstanding, as far as what time orders are supposed to be taking place. … All four switches and keys must be turned at the exact same time in order for that launch vote to be sent out to the missile.”

The Airmen also spend their time on routine inspections and sending messages to others in the operation and to the ICBM itself. Missileers must give the weapon system what is essentially a “stand-down” order every six hours. If they don’t respond to that prompt within 10 minutes, the missiles will assume that its human operators are dead, and start looking for a launch command from one of the Pentagon’s nuclear mission control aircraft. However, a missile cannot launch without receiving the launch codes from a human operator.

Down in the bunker, the dissonance between current ICBM mission systems and what they could become is the most tangible. 

Missileers no longer know what a knob on the dashboard labeled “WAR PLAN” was once used for. Eight-inch floppy disks that connect the missile system to national decision-makers are retired, but smaller ones are still around. Giant black folders hold piles of instructions to flip through by hand. The computer screens are primitive by today’s standards, but they’re nice and simple, missileers said. They get the job done.

The Airmen who work on the ICBMs every day were not alive to see the first attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. As talk of great power competition resurges in Washington, they likely do not remember much of the Cold War, were never made to do “duck and cover” drills under their school desks, do not know how it feels to live as a civilian faced with the fear of imminent nuclear destruction. They protect an America that has also moved on since the 1990s, and is now fuzzy, at best, on the specifics of the U.S. stockpile.

But the possibility that they might one day be called upon to open their lockbox, remove the keys, turn the four switches and keys in sync, and launch a new era in nuclear weapons history—connecting the antiquated system to modern day in another way—is as real to them as the chairs they occupy underground for 24 hours at a time. That mindset will carry through to the digital era of GBSD as well.

In the meantime, they’ll put up with the dials that no longer matter and the workstation that brings Dr. Strangelove to mind. They’re doing the best with what they’ve got, until a new weapon system for a new generation of nuclear experts is in place.

“For deterrence to be credible, you have to announce that, here’s our weapon system. It works as we designed, and it still works, even though it is aging,” Colbert said. “We have the will, we have the intent, we have the training, we have the forces that are able to employ it professionally, safely, and reliably.”