US Air Force aborts the planned test launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile for unexplained reasons

icbm minuteman
An unarmed Minuteman III ICBM during a test at Vandenberg Air Force Base, August 2, 2017.

  • The US Air Force had to abort a planned test launch of one of its Minuteman III ICBMs.
  • The service said a “ground abort” was experienced prior to launch but didn’t go into specifics.
  • The abort comes amid a debate about the nuclear modernization and the future of the ICBM force.
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The US Air Force aborted the planned test launch of a Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile, Air Force Global Strike Command said in a statement Wednesday.

The launch was scheduled for sometime between 12:15 a.m. and 6:15 a.m. Pacific Time on Wednesday morning at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, but it “experienced a ground abort prior to launch,” the Air Force said.

The service did not go into detail on the specifics, only noting in its brief statement that “the cause of the ground abort is currently under investigation” and that Global Strike Command is “assessing the potential to reschedule the launch.”

The US military’s roughly 400 silo-based LGM-30G Minuteman III ICBMs are the land-based leg of the US nuclear triad, which also includes nuclear-capable bombers and nuclear-armed ballistic missile submarines.

The Air Force conducts regular test launches to ensure that weapons, respective launch systems, and related personnel remain reliable should the US find itself in a nuclear crisis.

Problems during the testing are rare, but they do happen. In 2018, for example, the US military was forced to terminate an unarmed ICBM in flight after an anomaly created an “unsafe flight condition.”

The latest issue, whatever it may be, comes amid a debate over efforts to modernize America’s ICBM force, an expensive endeavor that has received some pushback from progressive politicians and arms control advocates.

The US military, in partnership with major defense contractor Northrop Grumman, aims to replace the existing intercontinental ballistic missiles with new ICBMs under the Ground-Based Strategic Defense (GBSD) program, which could have a total cost of several hundred billion dollars.

Minuteman ICBMs have been in service since the early 1960s, and US military leaders argue that without modernization, the US runs the risk of its missiles eventually not working at all.

Adm. Charles Richard, who currently leads US Strategic Command, told lawmakers in April that he “cannot deter with the leftovers of the Cold War forever,” arguing that the ICBM force is past the point of upgrade and needs to be replaced.

Given the lack of clarity surrounding the unexpected abort of Wednesday’s test launch, it is unclear what impact, if any, this could have on the ongoing debate surrounding nuclear modernization efforts and the future of the ICBM force.

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Top nuclear commander says he will push to put bombers back on alert if US gets rid of its ICBMs

B-52H Stratofortresses from the 2nd Bomb Wing line up on the runway as part of a readiness exercise at Barksdale Air Force Base, La.
B-52H bombers on the runway during a readiness exercise at Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana.

  • The head of STRATCOM said he would put bombers on alert if the ICBM leg of the triad goes away.
  • His comments come as some in Congress question the need for nuclear modernization spending.
  • The STRATCOM commander says he needs a modern ICBM force, not “leftovers of the Cold War.”
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

America’s top nuclear commander told lawmakers Tuesday that he would push to put US nuclear-capable bombers on alert if the military lost its intercontinental ballistic missiles.

As some lawmakers question the need to invest in nuclear modernization programs like the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent, a replacement for the aging Minuteman III ICBM force, the head of US Strategic Command is arguing in favor of moving forward with the modernization plans and against cutting the ICBM force.

STRATCOM commander Adm. Charles Richard has argued previously that a failure to modernize and replace what the US has now is essentially disarmament in the face of a growing threat. Russia has its own nuclear triad, and China is developing a functional triad.

Speaking before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday, Richard said that if the ICBM leg of the US nuclear triad were to be abandoned, then the bomber force would have to take its place as an always-ready nuclear deterrent.

“What is not often recognized is that we don’t have a triad day-to-day,” Richard said. “The bombers are not available to us. We chose to take them off alert as a type of peace dividend after the Cold War. Day-to-day, what you have is basically a dyad.”

The three legs of the US nuclear triad are the silo-based ICBMs, ballistic-missile submarines, and bombers, all of which are overseen by STRATCOM. All are options, but only the submarines and the ICBMs are ready to go at a moment’s notice.

Richard argued that the “basic design criteria in the triad is that you cannot allow a failure of any one leg of the triad to prevent you from being able to do everything the president has ordered you to do.”

“If you don’t have intercontinental ballistic missiles, we can’t meet that criteria,” the admiral said, adding, “You are completely dependent on the submarine leg, and I’ve already told the secretary of defense that under those conditions I would request to re-alert the bombers.”

Richard stressed Tuesday that without funding for programs like the GBSD – the research and development of which is expected to cost more than $85 billion, with a total life-cycle cost in the hundreds of billions – the US runs the risk of its ICBMs eventually “not working at all.” He said that he simply “cannot deter with the leftovers of the Cold War forever.”

Putting the strategic bomber force back on alert, meaning loaded and ready for an immediate nuclear strike should the order come, would be a return to practices that were common decades ago during the Cold War.

The idea of putting bombers back on alert has come up before, though not in the context of a potential loss of a leg of the nuclear triad.

In 2017, Defense One reported that the Air Force was preparing to put the nuclear bombers back on 24-hour alert. That change, however, was never actually made.

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