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Minuteman III Missile Test Launch Planned from Vandenberg Amid Unusual Secrecy

An unarmed Minuteman III missile test is planned from Vandenberg Air Force Base early Wednesday, although military officials remained unusually mum about their plans amid a service-wide crackdown on the release of information.

The three-stage weapon is scheduled to blast out of the underground silo on North Base between 3:26 a.m. and 9:36 a.m. Wednesday.

Upon liftoff, the military will track the weapon’s lone mock re-entry vehicle while it to travels to a predetermined target more than 4,200 miles southwest of Vandenberg.

A task force from the 90th Missile Wing at F.E. Warren AFB, Wyoming is participating in the test, along with the 576th Flight Test Squadron, which installed test-unique equipment and is located at Vandenberg.

In an unusual twist, neither the websites for Vandenberg AFB nor the Air Force Global Strike Command noted the planned launch less than 12 hours from liftoff.

This launch comes more than two months after another Minuteman test was cancelled to avoid a conflict during the Olympic Games..

Vandenberg Public Affairs personnel sent out a notification Feb. 5 about plans to conduct a missile test the following day.

The test was mysteriously canceled, but Vandenberg officials never sent a follow-up notification to correct what they later called an error. 

That test had been planned days before the start of the PyeongChang Winter Olympic Games in South Korea.

For decades, Vandenberg officials have sent alerts about launches to inform the public and avoid sparking fears of residents who can see, hear and feel loud departures.

Even during the Cold War, secrecy only kept notification of launches from American taxpayers. The United States routinely alerted its foes, such as the former Soviet Union, of planned launches to ensure a blastoff wasn’t mistaken for an actual attack. 

Additionally, due to safety reasons, Vandenberg officials regularly issue notices to mariners and pilots advising them to avoid certain areas due to planned launches.

All the secrecy from the public affairs staff tasked with touting the Air Force mission appears to stem from a service-wide crackdown in the name of operational security, according to stories in Defense News and Air Force Times, non-military publications.

The effort includes mass retraining during which military officials will avoid most public outreach activity for a 120-day period, sparking concerns the new rules could lead to a lack of transparency regarding unclassified or unfavorable information, the publications said.

The Military Reporters and Editors association expressed concern. 

“We respect the need for operational security. That’s why there is classified information," said  John M. Donnelly, the group’s president and a reporter with Congressional Quarterly and Roll Call. "We understand, too, that sometimes even unclassified information can convey important details to an enemy.

"But security must be balanced against the need to inform the public. We worry that the definition of the kind of unclassified information that can be withheld is subjective.

"Given the ambiguity about what’s allowed and the message from the top stressing secrecy, officials who are wary about their careers may err on the side of withholding information," Donnelly said.

"And in a worse case scenario, such guidance could be used to justify keeping out of public view data that may simply be embarrassing to the Air Force but that the U.S. citizenry needs to know.
When it comes to unclassified information, the presumption in a democracy should favor disclosure.

"Ultimately, the proof will be in the execution of this new guidance, and MRE will be closing watching that."

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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