A Minuteman III missile carrying three mock warheads blasts off.

A Minuteman III missile carrying three mock warheads blasts off during a test launch at Vandenberg Air Force Base early Tuesday. (U.S. Air Force photo)

A Minuteman III missile carrying three mock warheads blasted off during a test launch at Vandenberg Air Force Base early Tuesday morning for an operation involving a joint team of airmen and sailors.

The three-stage intercontinental ballistic missile popped out of its underground silo on North Base at 12:21 a.m., the beginning of the six-hour window.

Upon blastoff, the military tracked the weapon and its mock re-entry vehicles during the flight to predetermined targets in the Kwajalein Atoll in the central Pacific Ocean, some 4,200 miles southwest of the launch site.

“The flight test program demonstrates one part of the operational capability of the ICBM weapon system,” said Col. Omar Colbert, 576th Flight Test Squadron commander. 

“The Minuteman III is 50 years old, and continued test launches are essential in ensuring its reliability until the 2030s when the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent is fully in place. Most importantly, this visible message of national security serves to assure our allies and dissuade potential aggressors,” Colbert added. 

The 576th Flight Test Squadron, which is based at Vandenberg, includes some of the military elite missile operations and maintenance crew members.

This summer marks the 50th anniversary of the Minuteman III weapon system’s addition to the nation’s arsenal, although the ICBMs have since received a number of upgrades to extend their life until the replacement, the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent, can be deployed.

Members of Vandenberg’s 30th Space Wing helped ensure the mission occurred safely. 

“This launch demonstrates that we are able to provide the range support needed to facilitate this test during peacetime operations in the midst of COVID-19 operations,” said Col. Anthony Mastalir, 30th Space Wing commander at Vandenberg.

“Signifying that our nuclear enterprise is safe, secure, reliable, effective and ready to defend the United States and our allies.”

For Tuesday’s test, the military used the Airborne Launch Control System aboard the Navy’s E-6 aircraft which carried airmen from the 625th Strategic Operations Squadron based at Offutt AFB, Nebraska.

Those airman flying aboard the Navy plane performed the final key turns to prompt the missile’s launch. Typically, that key turn would be performed by a team sitting in an underground launch facility at Vandenberg.

Scheduled years ahead of time, test launches are not a response or reaction to world events or regional tensions, military officials said.

Test launches verify the accuracy and reliability of the ICBM weapon system, providing valuable data to ensure a continued safe, secure and effective nuclear deterrent, military officials said. 

Airmen from the 90th Missile Wing at F.E. Warren AFB, Wyoming, were selected to support the test launch. However, due to current COVID-19 travel restrictions, crewmembers from the 576th supported the launch with alert crews and an operational crew for the night of the test. 

Lt. Col. Joseph Edington, task force commander, noted the jobs performance by those involved in the mission. 

“The attention given to every task accomplished here reflects the precision and professionalism we bring every day in our missile field to ensure our nation’s nuclear deterrence,” Edington said.

The Air Force has approximately 400 Minuteman III missiles sitting on alert in and near Wyoming, Montana and North Dakota and conducts a few tests each year from Vandenberg.

Noozhawk North County editor Janene Scully can be reached at jscully@noozhawk.com. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.