U.S. Space Force Conducts Its First Nuclear-Capable Missile Test

An unarmed Minuteman III ICBM launches during a developmental test from Vandenberg Air Base in California on Wednesday, February 5, 2020An unarmed Minuteman III ICBM launches during a developmental test from Vandenberg Air Base in California on Wednesday, February 5, 2020Photo: DVIDS/U.S. Air Force

The U.S. tested a nuclear-capable missile overnight, launching an unarmed Minuteman III from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, according to the 30th Space Wing, which is now part of the newly organized United States Space Force.

The intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) was launched at 12:33 am local time (3:33 am ET) and traveled roughly 4,200 miles across the Pacific Ocean, landing near the Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands. It’s the first publicly announced missile test of the Air Force’s 30th Space Wing since it was placed under the command of the Space Force.

The much-hyped Space Force was officially created by President Donald Trump as the sixth branch of the U.S. military back in December, though so far it’s staffed with people carrying out the same missions as before, just under a new name. Officially, Space Force is still organized under the U.S. Air Force.

“This launch marks a very special moment in our nation’s history,” Col. Anthony Mastalir, 30th Space Wing commander, said in a press release. “Providing the range support needed to facilitate this launch showcases how the Space Force will continue to support and integrate into the joint fight to ensure national security for our country.”

The 30th Space Wing office of Public Affairs released a video of the launch Wednesday morning. It looks identical to previous launches from Vandenberg.

The Minuteman III missile has been in service since 1970 and has a maximum range of just over 8,000 miles (13,000 km), making it able to target virtually anything around the globe. But the missile is expected to be phased out during the 2020s.

The Air Force announced in 2016 that it was looking to develop the next generation of land-based nuclear missile technology, known as the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD). The GBSD, which is expected to have improved guidance technology, is expected to be delivered by 2029 and will likely be in use through the 2070s—provided humans make it that long as a species.

“Developmental testing provides valuable data to Air Force Global Strike Command and Air Force Nuclear Weapons Center for both modernization and sustainment of the ICBM weapon system,” Col. Omar Colbert, 576th Flight Test Squadron Commander, said in a press release.

“The Minuteman III is aging, and modernization programs such as this are essential in ensuring that our Nation has a reliable nuclear deterrent through the rest of its lifespan and beyond. Most importantly, this visible indicator of our National security capabilities serves to assure our partners and dissuade potential aggressors.”