Feb. 11, 2017 Kwajalein Hourglass
The Air Force Global Strike Command lobbed up a cluster of mock warheads aboard a Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile Thursday night. Completing its 4,200-mile journey from the mid-California coast in roughly 30 minutes, the ICBM’s payload bowled into the atmosphere east of Kwajalein Atoll shortly after 8 p.m., deploying a trio of re-entry vehicles aimed for pre-planned impact areas in Mid-Atoll Corridor waters.
GT221, the official name of the exercise, was the first test in years in which the Global Strike Command put the Minuteman III’s ability to carry and deploy multiple warheads to a flight test. Many U.S. Army Garrison-Kwajalein Atoll residents took the opportunity to witness the rare sight. From a moonlit vantage at North Point on Kwajalein, hundreds of Kwaj residents watched the three re-entry vehicles pierce the planet’s atmosphere in excess of 9,900 mph and strike the ocean in a dim orange glow, a faint sign of the ferocious impact between the vehicles and the water.
The launch and re-entry test was part of the Air Force’s long-standing program put in place to evaluate the longevity and accuracy of America’s fleet of nuclear-armed Minuteman III ICBMs. These “glory trip” tests, as they are fondly described in the space and missile community, occur several times a year at America’s western missile test range. Each test involves a launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California and observation missions by personnel farther downrange, primarily at the Maui Air Force Optical Tracking Station and the Reagan Test Site at Kwajalein Atoll.
After the missile maintainers and launch officers at Vandenberg launch the ICBM, it’s the job of mission technicians and engineers in mobile observation platforms and at Maui and Kwajalein Atoll to study the missile’s health during each stage of its journey. Using computerized telescopes and powerful radars, personnel collect the missile’s performance data and track its payload as it careens along a ballistic flightpath that takes it up to 700 miles above the Earth’s surface, far outside the planet’s atmosphere. As the mock warhead post-boost vehicle assembly nears its destination at Kwajalein Atoll, the radar systems at the Kiernan Reentry Measurements System site on Roi-Namur play a major role in determining how close each warhead comes to hitting its pre-planned mark at the atoll. Because accuracy is paramount in these tests, data collected by motion- and impact-sensitive watercraft are also pulled in to corroborate the radar systems’ data and help inform Global Strike Command how accurately the warheads performed.
Each dazzling GT re-entry at Kwajalein Atoll wraps up the end of a long logistical preparation phase involving agencies spread throughout the Department of Defense. Starting the process is missile selection: An armed Minuteman III gets randomly pulled from the fleet of about 450 nuclear-armed ICBMs spread across Air Force Bases in Wyoming, North Dakota and Montana. Then the missile is transported to Vandenberg, the go-to site for all operational launches and missile tests in the western continental United States. Later, missile maintainers and launch officers from one of three 20th Air Force missile wings join contractors and government officials at Vandenberg to set up the missile for launch and turn the keys to send the ICBM flying.
For Thursday night’s test, Airmen from the 91st Missile Wing, from Minot Air Force Base, North Dakota, were pulled from their Minuteman III silos at Minot and assigned to perform the test launch alongside Global Strike Command’s 576th Flight Test Squadron, the latter of which is based at Vandenberg to help perform the GT missions with visiting Airmen. The squadron commander commended the Minot group for its performance during the test mission.
“The men and women from the 91st Missile Wing Task Force, the Airmen from my squadron, and our host unit here at Vandenberg worked tirelessly to pull this launch off—it was awesome to see everyone’s hard work pay off!” said Col. Craig Ramsey, 576th Flight Test Squadron commander, in an Air Force statement. “These Airmen make me proud every day, and efforts like these make nuclear deterrence effective.”