HILL AIR FORCE BASE — Serving as the nerve center for a massive, multibillion-dollar program to replace old intercontinental ballistic missiles, Hill Air Force Base represents the future of the nation’s land-based leg of the nuclear triad.
But during the wee hours of Thursday morning, crews from Hill provided a reminder that the Northern Utah military installation is still well-invested in the here and now.
A team of Air Force Nuclear Weapons Center experts from Hill recently supported the launch of an unarmed intercontinental ballistic missile at Vandenburg Air Force Base in California. In a press release, Air Force spokesperson Leah Bryant said the launch was conducted to verify the ICBM’s accuracy and reliability and will provide valuable data to ensure the nuclear deterrent is ready to defend the United States and its allies at a moment’s notice.
Test launches are not a response or reaction to world events or regional tensions.
Bryant said the unarmed “LGM-30G Minuteman III” missile was launched at 12:27 a.m. Pacific time Thursday. The missile’s reentry vehicle contained test instruments and traveled about 4,200 miles to the Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands.
Col. Erik Quigley, Minuteman III Systems director, said the operational test launches serve several purposes.
“First, they are a demonstration of our nuclear launch capability to all potential adversaries,” Quigley said in a statement. “Second, they provide assurance of continued launch capability to any allies that rely on our nuclear forces to support their security. And third, they help validate our models of the Minuteman III fleet to ensure the ICBMs continue to meet stringent nuclear launch requirements.”
Bryant said the tests are conducted under Air Force Global Strike Command’s Nuclear Weapon System Evaluation Program, part of an ongoing effort to test weapon systems in training missions that will prepare aircrews for future assignments.
Thursday’s outfit included crews from the Air Force, U.S. Strategic Command and the Department of Energy — groups that will collect data from the launch and evaluate the missile’s performance.
Bryant said the Minuteman III Systems directorate at Hill provides engineering and logistics support for an average of four test launches each year, but in recent months the crew has supported “several” launches, going beyond the normal workload.
The launches are scheduled three to five years in advance, Bryant said, and planning for each begins six months to a year prior. For a launch, the Hill group conducts a pre-launch analysis to determine if all systems are ready or if anomalies could impact the launch from the ground or during flight.
The group also assists the random selection of the launch missile for the U.S.’s current fleet, provides logistics support for the missile’s transfer to Vandenberg, and provides technical support before, during and after the test launch, Bryant said.
Bryant said the current U.S. Minuteman III missile fleet was fielded in the 1970s, with an initial 10-year service life, and is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. The launch infrastructure system spreads across five states and includes 400 missiles, 450 launch facilities and 45 launch control centers — all on alert 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Hill will serve as headquarters for the program that will replace the current system.
Known as the “Ground Based Strategic Deterrent” program, the initiative involves the acquisition of new missiles, new command and control systems and, eventually, large-scale renovations of launch control centers. The program is estimated to cost more than $80 billion over its 30-year life span.
Currently being built up near Hill’s southwest border with Roy, the program will eventually include six new buildings on base with over 1 million square feet of office and lab facilities. In August 2019, Northrop Grumman broke ground on the Roy Innovation Center, which will serve as future headquarters for Northrop’s work supporting the program.
Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, has said the GBSD program is expected to bring as many as 4,000 new employees to Northern Utah.