By Joe Thomas, Air Force Global Strike Command
/ Published September 08, 2017
An unarmed Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile launches during an operational test at 2:10 a.m. Pacific Daylight Time Wednesday, Aug. 2, 2017, at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Ian Dudley/Released)
A B-2 drops a B-61 Joint Test Assembly Aug 24, 2015.
Editor’s Note: This story is about the men and women charged with preventing large-scale total war. Everything here is factual and provided by eyewitnesses, subject matter experts and Airmen who live and breathe the Global Strike mission. In total, there are nine wings in Air Force Global Strike Command, most with differing specialties but all of equal importance in sustaining a relative world peace. This story is about two of them.
More specifically, this feature serves as a comparative look at two simulated nuclear weapons tests conducted in the month of August 2017, and the units that carried them out. Although the article is limited in scope, its completion would have been impossible without all AFGSC Airmen and their ability to defend, maintain and employ the world’s deadliest arsenal.
On Aug. 2, 2017, Air Force Global Strike Command conducted a test launch of an unarmed intercontinental ballistic missile at Vandenberg Air Force Base, just off of California’s central coast. Although the test was planned more than three years in advance, the public forum was abuzz, with many calling the launch a response to Pyongyang’s aggressive rhetoric. Twenty days later, a B-2 Spirit — America’s only stealth bomber — dropped an unarmed B61 nuclear gravity bomb on a small target in the Nevada desert. Hardly anyone noticed.
The common thread: both were routine tests associated with a business that has been paradoxically described as “world saving” and “world ending” by advocates and opponents respectively. Their one agreement: Global Strike Airmen have the awesome responsibility of keeping these weapons safe and secure.
Added to this mission is a conventional capability designed to strategically hamstring an adversary with tailorable combat force delivered from any one of the nation’s long range bombers. The formula is simple: precision, combined with reach and overwhelming firepower.
A series of tests, evaluations and exercises lay at the heart of this business, rigors designed to simulate realistic combat conditions and hone complex skills. The focus of these tests: AFGSC Airmen and their ability to serve as the gatekeepers of global security — a job Airmen have performed for more than 70 years.
The day had barely begun in the early morning hours of Aug. 2, 2017, local officials, the press and service members stood in a viewing area at Vandenberg AFB. When not staring into the starless sky, they traded small talk as they waited for the countdown to begin.
Moments later, an arc of white light pierced the predawn sky, the fiery wake of an unarmed Minuteman III ICBM. Roughly as tall as a six-story building, the missile approached Mach 23 upon leaving earth’s atmosphere. Its intended target was a small patch of empty ocean in the Kwajalein Atoll approximately 4,200 miles away.
Little more than 30 minutes later, a single ball of light pierced the grey veil of clouds above the atoll, white-hot from re-entry. Viewed straight on, it appeared as a slow-moving flare until only seconds away from splashdown. Its path viewed from the side: a falling star.
The vehicle broke apart on impact, small ocean waves little more than ripples serving as the only physical evidence of its existence. That ball of light — the Minuteman III’s unarmed re-entry vehicle — carried a test package designed for real-time data delivery, information that simulated the trajectory of one of the world’s most powerful weapons.
As amateur photographers captured imagery of the ICBM upon launch, vigilant professionals tracked the missile’s progress, relaying data output and mission-specific commands in a room too large to be that quiet. Punctuated by large screens, rows of computers and windowed enclosures, it was a dialed-down version of the mission control centers of such films as Apollo 13 and Independence Day.
The missileers, either members of the 576th Flight Test Squadron or the 90th Missile Wing based out of F.E. Warren AFB, Wyoming, focused their dialogue on the essentials. For the 90 MW it was the same mission, different location, trading in the sprawling prairies of Wyoming, Nebraska and Colorado for California’s wine country.
“This past test launch had its fair share of challenges, which required us to focus and react quickly,” 1st Lt. Frank Osborn, a missileer who worked the launch, said. “Professionalism must always be in your mind, because at any moment you may have an emergency situation on your hands.”
The 90 MW’s Airmen are trained in the execution of the Minuteman III mission — a counter-strike capability that serves as the United States’ most responsive strategic weapon. Their motto: Impavide — “Fearless.”
Rarely do missileers discuss mission specifics outside of operational circles, not out of fear of sharing classified information, but simply because such talk is unnecessary. Due to global chatter and a 24-hour news cycle, the world was already watching when the missile launched at 2:10 a.m.
Allies and adversaries alike discussed the test the world over, with sources misattributing the unarmed launch to regional tensions in the Pacific. However, Global Strike officials quickly point out that each operational test launch is planned three to five years in advance with the sole purpose of validating the reliability of the Minuteman III fleet, a fleet that is spread across 450 silos in Montana, Nebraska, Wyoming, Colorado and North Dakota.
“The test launch is not only a show of our capabilities but it is also a way of obtaining accurate data in as near an operational environment as possible,” 1st Lt. Terrence Cole, a 90 MW missileer, said. “So, to achieve the best results, months of planning, preparations and safety precautions go into having a test launch that yields accurate and useable data to make the weapon system more efficient.”
Air Force Global Strike Command calls the Minuteman III “America’s Big Stick,” a reference to the famous quote by Teddy Roosevelt and the weapon’s role in maintaining a 70-year-old relative world peace. However, it is not the only weapon with such a purpose.
The Gravity Bomb
Twenty days later, a B-2 Spirit taxied down a runway at Whiteman AFB, Missouri, its sleek, streamlined form visible to little beyond animal senses. Its payload: an unarmed B61 nuclear gravity bomb.
The pilot, armed with two checklists, one for the aircraft and one for the simulated nuclear weapon, prepared for takeoff. The B-2 was only seconds away from embarking on the final phase of a Nuclear Weapon Systems Evaluation Program test, or NucWSEP, for the 509th Bomb Wing. Their motto: Defensor Vindex — “Defender Avenger.”
Unlike most aircraft that carry the B61, the B-2 is a penetrating bomber, capable of inserting itself into enemy airspace with little to no detection by adversarial equipment. It’s an advantage that has played a crucial role in conflict for over two-and-a-half decades.
Also, largely unseen by many was the weapons load crew — four Airmen who worked tirelessly the day before to install the unarmed weapon and corresponding test instruments. It’s a job that requires the use of a munitions lift truck, a motorized four-wheeled vehicle that lifts a weapon into the receiving aircraft. All of this is done inside a hangar that echoes everything — from the sound of the lift truck's motor, to the metal on metal clanks of removal, to the yells of Airmen as they coordinate the task of loading. It’s loud.
Despite the noise, evaluators observed these Airmen every step of the way as if they were performing the task for an actual combat operation. It’s a process that is sober, methodical and highly professional.
“These Airmen train how they fight,” Larry Hannon, a Bomber Test Manager for AFGSC, said. “This was an end-to-end test that simulates operational realism. More importantly it validates their ability to execute the mission if called upon by the president of the United States.”
Hannon, a member of AFGSC’s Directorate of Operations and Communications (also known as A3/6 and a key division in monitoring the test), refers to the fact that only the U.S. president can authorize the use of a nuclear weapon. He additionally explains that although certain models of the B61 are considered “bunker busters” (able to penetrate an adversary’s most entrenched, reinforced defenses), this particular model was a test package meant for simulation only.
The B61 test package is easily discernible by its bright orange paint and white stripe. Unlike a cruise missile that propels itself to a designated target, the B61 is designed to execute a precise, controlled descent, a capability that is one part targeting equipment and one part skill, which is highly intuitive and hard earned from rigorous training on the part of the B-2 aircrew.
After performing several tasks during the airborne portion of the evaluation, the B-2 releases the weapon. Within seconds, the B61 spits out a spiral of smoke before rapidly spinning. The weapon continues to fall until it is half submerged in the flat, off-white landscape of the Nevada desert. There is no detonation.
Although the NucWSEP involved a simulated B61, the process validated Team Whiteman’s ability to carry out this mission in real-time, under real-life conditions. It is only one in a series of arduous tests the Airmen will have to undergo, whether they are validating the effectiveness of the weapon, themselves or both.
The Minuteman III serves as the only ground-based leg of the “Nuclear Triad,” which is the combination of ICBMS, strategic bombers, and nuclear-capable submarines responsible for maintaining global stability. The former two belong to Air Force Global Strike Command. The latter belongs to the U.S. Navy.
The B-2 Spirit shares the strategic bomber leg with the B-52 Stratofortress and B-1 Lancer. It’s a complex mission as the B-2 and B-52 both support nuclear and conventional missions. The B-1 Lancer is a conventional bomber only, bringing its own scalable advantages to the global fight, advantages that are in high demand by U.S. military commanders the world over.
Wherein lies the term “strategic.” Like few other options in the nation’s inventory, these assets (both nuclear and conventional) are specifically designed to target an adversary’s Achilles’ heel, regardless of whether or not they are a large country or non-state organization. This is achieved by bypassing battlefields, troop movements and other tactical situations on the ground — a capability that has proven essential in maintaining the upper hand for more than 70 years.
For this reason, AFGSC Airmen are supporting most of the nation’s combat operations around the world while simultaneously keeping a peace between larger powers – a birthright granted from their Strategic Air Command heritage.
Meanwhile, Airmen at home develop their combat skills and validate the nation’s ability to strike globally from home station. In tandem with the U.S. Navy’s submarine force, the nuclear triad serves as the nation’s main deterrent against large-scale aggression, a deterrent that is predicated on the belief that war against the U.S. and its allies is not worth the cost.
The annals and doctrine of the U.S. Air Force continuously state that the United States can’t win a war without airpower. An equally accurate statement: the nation can’t prevent one without Global Strike Airmen.