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Minuteman III Missile Test Launch from Vandenberg AFB Ends in Failure

Range control officers at Vandenberg Air Force Base terminated the flight of an unarmed Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile after it launched early Tuesday morning.

Air Force Global Strike Command representatives said crews sent the self-destruct command at 4:42 a.m. while the missile flew over the Pacific Ocean. 

The three-stage weapon earlier had blasted out of an underground silo on North Base en route to a predetermined target in the central Pacific Ocean near the Kwajalein Atoll.

The launch occurred at 4:38 a.m. and the destruct command was sent approximately four minutes later,  Global Strike Command officials confirmed Wednesday.

For test launches from Vandenberg, the Minuteman III missiles are equipped with ordnance that allows range safety crew members to send commands to destroy the weapon if it begins to veer off course or otherwise behave oddly.

“An anomaly is any unexpected event during the test,” Global Strike Command representatives said.  “Since anomalies may arise from many factors relating to the operational platform itself, or the test equipment, careful analysis is needed to identify the cause.”

All just-launched rockets and missiles are monitored by members of the Western Range, which belongs to Vandenberg's 30th Space Wing, to ensure the vehicles don't veer off course.

In the case of an errant missile or rocket, Western Range crew members can send commands setting off tiny explosives that slice the casing of the weapon, stopping the flight and causing the vehicle to break apart.

Those mission flight control officers, or MFCOs, have operated under the motto of "Track 'Em or Crack 'Em" for more than 1,900 blastoffs from Vandenberg.

Air Force officials will form a “launch analysis group” to investigate the cause of the failure. That panel will include representatives from Global Strike Command, the 576th Flight Test Squadron, the 30th Space Wing Safety Office and the Air Force Nuclear Weapons Center, among other organizations. 

Vandenberg conducts several test launches each year to gather information about the weapon system’s performance.

“The test launch program helps the command evaluate the Minuteman III and gather data to keep the system effective,” Global Strike Command officials said. “The command learns lessons from every test launch. 

“Gathering data from the launch allows AFGSC to identify and correct any issues with the weapon system to ensure the Minuteman III’s continued reliability and accuracy.”

The Air Force has 400 Minuteman III weapons sitting on alert around Malmstrom AFB, Montana; Minot AFB, North Dakota and F.E. Warren AFB, Wyoming.

The task force of missile crew operators and maintainers for Tuesday's test launch came from Malmstrom AFB, Global Strike Command representatives said.

Louisiana-based Global Strike Command oversees the fleet of land-based and air-launched nuclear weapons and their crews.

Planning for Minuteman tests from Vandenberg begins months or years ahead of time, and includes the random selection of a weapon sitting on alert. The timing of those tests is not releated to any real-world events, Global Strike Command officials have said.

For those launches, members of the 576th Flight Test Squadron at Vandenberg install test-unique equipment on the missile to ensure the military can gather data about the flight and send a destruct command in case of a problem. 

News of a planned missile test prompted criticism from the Santa Barbara-based Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, noting the United States has denounced North Korea for testing similar weapon system.

“How can the United States demand North Korea’s good faith on denuclearization while the U.S. continues its own ICBM testing? The hypocrisy is nothing new, but what stands out with this test is the potential for blowing up the peace process underway with North Korea,” said Rick Wayman, deputy director of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation.

Noozhawk North County editor Janene Scully can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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