The Air Force said Wednesday it called off a test launch of an unarmed Minuteman III nuclear missile at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, after the weapon turned itself off during the final countdown.
The intercontinental ballistic missile, fired from an underground silo at the coastal base, “experienced a ground abort prior to launch,” the service said in a release.
“During terminal countdown, the missile computer detected a fault in the sequence of checks it does prior to launching. Upon detection of this fault, it shut itself down,” just as the system is designed to do, Air Force Global Strike Command spokesperson Carla Pampe told Air Force Times.
USAF will investigate the root cause of the problem. “There has not been an incident like this in recent memory,” Pampe added.
The Air Force may reschedule the test, one of a few held each year by the 576th Flight Test Squadron to see whether the five-decades-old weapons are still in good shape and can respond when fired. Test launches are also an opportunity to vet new hardware and software added into the system, and to signal to other countries that the U.S. is prepared for nuclear conflict.
Missiles used in the tests do not carry nuclear warheads as in real-life operations. Upon launching, they fly for about 30 minutes and splash down more than 4,200 miles away at the Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands.
The Air Force still oversees 400 of the long-range, land-based missiles spread across Montana, North Dakota, Wyoming, Nebraska and Colorado as part of the nuclear arsenal. It plans to replace them with a modern version starting in the late 2020s, amid concerns that the Minuteman III stockpile could become unusable with age.
ICBMs have become a target on Capitol Hill as lawmakers debate whether the Air Force could refurbish the current nuclear missiles instead of spending billions of dollars on a new set. The military has argued that approach would not be cost-effective and would result in subpar weapons that could not effectively counter Russia and China. Left-leaning lawmakers and arms control advocates say relying on nuclear missile-equipped bombers and submarines would be enough to deter enemies from attack.
“If you don’t have intercontinental ballistic missiles ... you are completely dependent on the submarine leg,” U.S. Strategic Command boss Adm. Charles Richard said last month. “I’ve already told the secretary of defense that under those conditions, I would request to re-alert the bombers.”
Rachel Cohen joined Air Force Times as senior reporter in March 2021. Her work has appeared in Air Force Magazine, Inside Defense, Inside Health Policy, the Frederick News-Post (Md.), the Washington Post, and others.