(Editor’s Note; We encourage our readers to send us pieces to be considered for publication. This comes from Cris Gettel, a veteran of both the regular Army and National Guard. He is a graduate student currently studying international relations in the Washington DC area)
On August 16th, the Air Force Global Strike Command launched a Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile from California into the Pacific Ocean. This test was delayed after Speaker Pelosi’s controversial visit to Taiwan over fears of escalating tensions with China over the status of the disputed island. With the conflict between Russia and Ukraine and China and Taiwan, this test was a message to world powers that America retains the ability to launch nuclear strikes anywhere in the world, but what exactly is the Minuteman III ICBM?
Along with submarine-launched ballistic missiles and long-range bombers, the Minuteman III ICBM is America’s sole land-based ballistic missile capable of carrying nuclear warheads. The original Minuteman I was developed in the 1950s and entered service in 1962 as a means of attacking Soviet cities if a world war broke out. The missile was continuously upgraded since, with the Minuteman III becoming operational in 1970. Currently equipped with a single W78 nuclear warhead with a yield of 335 kilotons, a single Minuteman III carries a payload over 20 times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945.
America currently has approximately 450 Minuteman III ICBMs in silos in Wyoming, Montana, and North Dakota. These missiles can be launched from command structures located underground at each Air Force base or by command and control planes airborne over the United States in times of crisis should the command structures be destroyed. Each missile has a range of about 8,000 miles, making it capable of reaching almost anywhere in the world in under an hour.
Designed to be launched from underground, protected silos, ICBMs are the mainstay of the nuclear arsenals of Russia, China, and America. America conducts routine tests to demonstrate, and remind, the world that its nuclear arsenal is reliable, its military well trained, and its nuclear deterrent intact. With increased rhetoric from both Russia and China, an ICBM test sent a strong but silent response.
US Strategic Command, tasked with, among other objectives, America’s nuclear arsenal, recently undertook the modernization of America’s nuclear deterrent. This entails addressing the rise of China’s nuclear arsenal as well as Russia’s expansionist ambitions. What this means for Minuteman III is that the end is near. The in-development Sentinel is set to replace all Minuteman III ICBMs starting in 2030. Originally a joint project proposed by President Obama and Congress in 2010, this represents a continued effort to modernize the land-based component of America’s nuclear forces. A new waIn addition ahead was chosen, with the W87 replacing the W78. This new warhead does not provide expanded military capabilities, like yield or accuracy. However, it does allow for expanded safety features with exact details being withheld for security reasons.
The primary purpose of nuclear weapons is to make war between world powers so terrible that tensions are never escalated to armed conflict. This is why billions of dollars are spent on nuclear weapons and delivery systems that have only been used twice since their inception in World War II. The Minuteman III and its recent August 16th test confirm this. Whether the test launch coincides with rising tensions with China or Russia or is simply a matter of routine training will never be publicly acknowledged. Still, the devastation one missile can cause is certain. This is why modernization is pursued, and the mainstay of America’s land-based nuclear missile arsenal will be replaced in the upcoming years.
But, like the current Minuteman III, it will probably never be used in anger.