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Rigorous Minuteman III testing part of Minot Air Force Base missile force

MINOT AIR FORCE BASE, N.D. — Members of the 576th Flight Test Squadron continuously test the Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile system to make sure it does what it’s supposed to do.

“We perform a fundamentally unique mission. We do a full on full, end to end testing of the Minuteman III weapon system,” said Capt. Kirsten McKenzie, an ICBM test operator with the 576th at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California.

McKenzie, Capt. Cole Evans, also an ICBM test operator, and Master Sgt. Matthew Ricker, noncommissioned officer in charge ICBM field test, all with the 576th, have spent a month at Minot AFB preparing for a Simulated Electronics Launch Missile (SELM).

SELM is a simulation of everything that leads up to an actual launch of a Minuteman III and culminates in the Launch Facility door blast, according to Minot AFB information.

SELM tests the critical functions of the operational weapon system in its field environment, providing important data to the Joint Staff, U.S. Strategic Command and Air Force Global Strike Command, according to 576th information, the Minot Daily News reported.

McKenzie, Evans and Ricker spoke about the 576th and its mission to members of the Minot Area Chamber EDC’s Military Affairs Committee at its April 1 meeting in the Grand Hotel, Minot.

“We don’t just launch missiles. The mid-entry weapon system can do what it does because it’s an extremely robust weapon system. There are various parts that allow us to do and perform end to end testing so not just the missile but the software programs that allow to interface with the weapon system in addition to why we are here today for this mission,” McKenzie said.

The 91st Missile Wing at Minot AFB is one of three ICBM wings that operate, maintain and secure a fleet of Minuteman III missiles located in underground launch facilities in the Minot missile field. The other two Minuteman III ICBM missile wings are at F.E. Warren AFB, Wyoming, and Malmstrom AFB, Montana.

McKenzie said they are continuously testing the Minuteman III weapon system “to prove to our allies that we can assure we have a weapon system to protect our nation and for global reach as well.”

She explained the Minuteman III weapon system has been around since the 1970s so it’s about 50 years old. “We’ve actually been testing this weapon system since it’s inception,” she said.

She said it is not the same weapon system that was put on line in the 1970s but has gone through various upgrades to keep it current with the times.

“Like I said earlier, we perform a very unique test mission and we do it for Air Force Global Strike Command for global reach and strike. We are the only ICBM test squadron out of Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, and across the United States Air Force,” McKenzie added.

Capt. Ryan Smith, 576th Flight Test Squadron ICBM test manager, explains the Minuteman III test launch process during a tour of the ICBM Launch Support Center, March 9, 2021, at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. (Michael Peterson/Air Force)
Capt. Ryan Smith, 576th Flight Test Squadron ICBM test manager, explains the Minuteman III test launch process during a tour of the ICBM Launch Support Center, March 9, 2021, at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. (Michael Peterson/Air Force)

Ricker said the Minuteman III ICBM, initially deployed in June 1970, has been “continuously on alert.”

He said the Minuteman III has gone through a series of upgrades largely as the result of the testing the 576th has done over the years.

He said the basic characteristics of the missile include it’s just under about 60 feet long, 5 1/2 feet wide at its widest point, and weighs just under 80,000 pounds.

It has a range of over 6,000 miles and a ceiling of 700 miles — the highest point of reach above the Earth’s surface during its flight, Ricker said. As a point of reference, he said the International Space Station orbits the Earth at approximately 250 miles above the surface. He also said the missile reaches a maximum speed of over 15,000 miles per hour — about 4 miles per second.

Evans, whose military career includes with the 740th Missile Squadron at Minot AFB, said when they test the Minuteman III ICBM weapon system their first priority is safety and do the testing as realistic as possible.

When operational test launches are conducted at Vandenberg AFB, he said, “These missiles are randomly selected from the missile wings.”

SELM tests the weapon system in its field environment.

“When we test, we test everything,” Evans said of the SELM.

Through all the testing of the weapon system over many years, he said, “what we really learn is this weapon system is awesome.”

Evans credited the support of the missile and bomb wings at Minot Air Force Base for making the SELM happen.

McKenzie also said many partners across the United States including the local communities support the Minuteman III ICBM mission “that allows this mission to be possible and to be successful.”

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