The U.S. military carried out a flight test of a nuclear-capable Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile on Wednesday, the Air Force Strike Command said in a statement.
The missile was launched from F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming and its inert warhead flew 4,200 miles to an impact zone near Kwajalein Atoll in the Pacific Ocean’s Marshall Islands.
"Test launches verify the accuracy and reliability of the ICBM weapon system, providing valuable data to ensure a continued safe, secure, and effective nuclear deterrent," the Air Force said in a statement announcing the test.
The LGM-30G Minuteman III is the central missile in the U.S. land-based nuclear missile forces.
The military has deployed 450 Minuteman III at three bases: Warren, Malmstrom Air Force Base, Montana, and Minot Air Force Base, North Dakota.
The missile can be equipped with up to three independently-targetable warheads and has a maximum range of over 8,000 miles, enough to target most areas of the northern hemisphere. Its precision-guided warheads are extremely accurate.
The missiles are on alert 24 hours a day in preparation for what the military calls launch on warning—firing when enemy missiles or nuclear bombers are detected heading toward U.S. territory.
The flight test comes as both Russia and China are building up nuclear forces and U.S. nuclear forces are facing a difficult modernization program in the face of severe defense budget cuts.
A forthcoming report by the congressional U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission states that China is expanding both its strategic nuclear forces and regional nuclear forces, including development of a new air-launched cruise missile that will be nuclear capable.
"In a conflict, China’s maturing theater nuclear capability could provide it with the means to flexibly employ nuclear weapons to deescalate or otherwise shape the direction of conflict," the draft report says.
The report identified the new missile as the CJ-20, which will be outfitted on H-6 bombers, each of which can carry six of the missiles.
The CJ-20 is a variant of the DH-10 land-attack cruise missile that is also nuclear-capable and "enhances the lethality of China’s air-launched cruise missile arsenal," the report says.
Russia’s nuclear buildup has included the addition of 111 nuclear warheads above the levels set in the 2010 U.S.-Russia New START arms treaty that requires warhead reductions to 1,550 warheads by 2018. Russia currently has 1,648 warheads, according to the latest State Department numbers.
By contrast, the U.S. nuclear arsenal has declined by 250 warheads since 2010 and is currently below the New START level of 1,550 warheads.
Russia currently is engaged in a large-scale modernization of its nuclear forces that includes new land-based missiles, including road-mobile and rail-mobile systems, new missile submarines and submarine-launched ballistic missiles, and a new long-range strategic bomber.
U.S. plans for a new long-range strike bomber to replace aging B-52, B-1, and B-2 bombers has been delayed by budget cuts, as have plans for a replacement for aging Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines
Air Force First Lt. Daniel Uresti Jr., a combat crew commander with the 320th Missile Squadron, said in an Air Force press release that Wednesday’s test launches demonstrated U.S. nuclear force capabilities.
"We stand ready, every minute of every day, and we know our jobs well," Uresti said. "We literally hold the keys to the most powerful weapons ever developed and we ensure the safety and reliability of these weapons."
According to the Air Force, missile technicians from the Pentagon, Energy Department, and U.S. Strategic Command use the flight test data for continuing force development evaluation.
"As operators, we know our jobs inside and out. Our maintenance personnel are extremely knowledgeable and capable of building up a missile quickly and together we can ensure we get ‘bombs on target,"‘ Uresti said.
"The ICBM mission isn't glamorous. The elements can be harsh and capsule life can be rigorous but we know the importance of what we do."
A U.S. official said the ICBM test launch was routine.
In 2012, defense officials said Obama administration political appointees sought to delay a test launch of a Minuteman III until after the November presidential election that year.
A launch had been scrapped three times for what Air Forces officials said were mechanical delays.
However, defense officials said the mechanical delays were minor and were easily remedied.
Earlier Minuteman III launches were carried out Aug. 19 from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., and on March 23 from Warren.