An unarmed Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile tested on Sept. 6, 2023, on Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands.

An unarmed Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile tested on Sept. 6, 2023, on Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands. (Ryan Sharp/U.S. Army)

WASHINGTON — The Air Force on Wednesday was forced to destroy a Minuteman III off the coast of California during a test of the unarmed intercontinental ballistic missile due to what service officials described as an unexpected anomaly.

The Air Force fired the missile at 12:06 a.m. from Vandenberg Space Force Base, which is just north of Los Angeles in Santa Barbara County. Officials did not say what went wrong during the test.

“An anomaly is any unexpected event during the test,” Air Force Global Strike Command said. “Since anomalies may arise from many factors relating to the operational platform itself, or the test equipment, careful analysis is needed to identify the cause. A launch analysis group is forming to investigate the cause.”

The Air Force said, however, the missile was “safely terminated” as it flew over the Pacific Ocean.

The Minuteman III is the only land-fired intercontinental ballistic missile in service in the United States and has been in use for decades. The missile was first introduced in 1970 and can carry various thermonuclear warheads. The missile represents the land portion of the U.S. nuclear triad.

Vandenberg Space Force Base regularly tests the missiles to maintain their effectiveness, readiness and accuracy. Most test launches are planned years in advance. Before Wednesday, the last test of a Minuteman III occurred Sept. 6.

“These test launches demonstrate the readiness of U.S. nuclear forces and provide confidence in the lethality and effectiveness of the nation’s nuclear deterrent,” said Space Force Col. Bryan Titus, vice commander of Space Launch Delta 30, a Space Force unit that oversees launches on the West Coast.

The Minuteman III missiles replaced the Minuteman I and II versions, which operated between the 1960s and mid-1990s and carried a variety of nuclear warheads. The Air Force intends to replace the Minuteman III with the LGM-35 Sentinel in the late 2020s or early 2030s.

Still in development, the Sentinel is being produced by Northrop Grumman and is expected to carry a more modern warhead. Earlier this year, the Air Force said deployment of the Sentinel could be delayed by a couple years due mainly to a shortage of engineers and missile parts.

“The Minuteman III has been and will continue to be integral to our nation’s defense,” Air Force Gen. Charles “CQ” Brown, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said. “Investing in nuclear modernization is as relevant as ever and we are committed to transitioning to the Sentinel, which will ensure our nation is ready to provide strategic deterrence for tomorrow.”

There are about 400 operational Minuteman IIIs in the United States, the Air Force said.

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Doug G. Ware covers the Department of Defense at the Pentagon. He has many years of experience in journalism, digital media and broadcasting and holds a degree from the University of Utah. He is based in Washington, D.C.

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