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Minuteman III: 50 years of deterrence and counting

A roundel celebrating 50 years of Minuteman III history.

A roundel celebrating 50 years of Minuteman III history. Air Force graphic by Capt Austin Troya.

BARKSDALE AIR FORCE BASE, La. --

August 19, 2020, marks fifty years since America’s Minuteman III Intercontinental Ballistic Missile was first placed on alert at Minot AFB, North Dakota and since then, Americans and their allies have slept peacefully at night because our Airmen were on alert.

Currently, 10,600 Air Force Global Strike Command Airmen have the watch, 24/7/365, operating the Alliance’s only fleet of ICBMs ready to conduct long-range precision strike.

Through the years, these Airmen stood alert diligently as conflict, terror and turmoil upset the international order across the globe. As the world moved from bipolarity to a developing great-power competition, today’s global security environment is more complex, dynamic and volatile than ever before.

“I’ve grown up around this missile system my entire career,” Lt. Gen. Anthony Cotton said. As the Air Force’s senior missileer, and now the deputy commander of Air Force Global Strike Command, he first started working with missiles in 1986, during the Reagan Administration. “We’ve seen the enemy change over time; however, the vigilance of the women and men securing, maintaining, sustaining and operating Minuteman has remained constant. They provide professional and dedicated over-watch and are the foundation of our national security.”

Spread across 33,600 square miles of Montana, North Dakota, Wyoming, Nebraska and Colorado, these nuclear Airmen continue to remain poised, professional and ready to provide America’s leaders with the most responsive leg of the nuclear triad. The ICBMs, weighing in at 79,000 pounds and capable of speeds over 15,000 mph, are the nation’s “ace in the hole.”

With missiles dispersed in hardened facilities underground, the Airmen--some underground and many topside--responded magnificently to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, pulling the longest alerts in history incurring personal and professional sacrifice.

The Airmen go largely unnoticed in the public’s eye due to their isolated location, meticulous attention to detail in mission execution and limited numbers of public engagements due to operational security. They don’t seek glory, nor the spotlight.

The Minuteman’s track record should never be questioned.

The Minuteman III initially only had a designed life of 10-years following a long lineage of three others, including the Minutemen IA, 1B and II beginning in the late 1950s. Now, as then, the missiles and the Airmen operating, maintaining and securing them today remain ready for anything, anywhere, at any time.

The fleet is often referred to as “the cornerstone of the security structure of the free world,” providing protection from existential threats and deterring from strategic attack while also providing the necessary opportunity for freedom of movement and maneuver around the world.

The Minuteman III continues to pave the way for security, stability and global operations, now and in the future.

The missile is 50-years-old though, and as commanders point out, maintaining the weapon can be difficult due to age. Parts and components have become obsolete because original manufacturers may no longer be in business. However, despite these challenges, they continue to be an effective deterrent, remaining safe, secure and lethal.

The Minuteman III will be with the U.S. Air Force until at least the 2030s when Ground Based Strategic Deterrent begins its debut protecting America.

The readiness of the systems are tested often, most recently on Aug. 4 when an unarmed missile was launched from Vandenberg AFB in California remotely from an Airborne Launch Control System flying overhead.

“Until GBSD comes online fully, we must continue to take the actions necessary to ensure Minuteman III remains a viable deterrent for the Nation,” said Gen. Tim Ray, AFGSC commander. “24/7/365 our missiles remain on alert, lethal and ready, providing the deterrence necessary to allow the rest of the nation to sleep peacefully at night. We all owe a large debt of gratitude to the missileers, maintainers, security forces and countless others, who held the watch over the past generation. However, the Minuteman III is 50-years-old. It’s time to modernize and bring on GBSD.”