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Behind the scenes: Vandenberg AFB crews prepare for missile launch

Posted at 6:35 PM, Feb 04, 2020
and last updated 2020-02-05 00:30:07-05

If you wake up to a rumbling early Wednesday morning, it could be from a launch at Vandenberg Air Force Base.

Crews plan to test-launch an unarmed Minuteman III Intercontinental Ballistic Missile some time between 12:08 a.m. and 6:08 a.m.

The launch is designed to test an upgraded fuze on a MK 21 warhead.

Airmen say the current fuze has been used three times longer than it's expected use.

The original Minuteman portfolio started in the early 1960s and its current version is from the '70s and early '80s.

Airmen say all of these repairs and upgrades in technology are moves toward modernization as the Air Force transitions to a Ground Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD) that will replace the Minuteman III weapon system.

"When you think about the technologies and the techniques that were used in the '60s for sustainability of a weapons systems, compared to what we can do to a missile system and its sustainability and modularity and ease and efficiency for the thousands of maintainers that will maintain this system, it's just night and day," said General Anthony Cotton, Deputy Commander of the Air Force Global Strike Command.

General Cotton briefly shed light on the uniqueness of the future GBSD:

Gen. Anthony Cotton sheds light on uniqueness of future GBSD

This will be the second test on this device out of four.

The next test on the fuze is anticipated in 2022, but there will be other operational launches later this year.

KSBY received unprecedented access to the base Monday, to learn more about the steps it takes to prepare an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile, or ICBM, for a test launch.

Airmen received parts for this missile about five months in advance and in this test, Airmen will be monitoring the GPS and telemetry on the Minuteman III.

During our tour, Airmen showed our cameras everything from where the missile is assembled to where two crew members will be turning the key to launch the Minuteman III for the 35th time.

Before the Minuteman III lights up the night sky over the Central Coast, it all starts at the Missile Processing Facility on Vandenberg Air Force Base.

"We will get a missile from any of the three wings: Malmstrom, Minot or F.E. Warren. They will ship that to us where we will receive it in a truck and roll transfer it, the downstage itself, onto these rails," explained Tech. Sgt. Caleb McElroy, 576th FLTS Missile Handling Team Supervisor.

In this bay, the Missile Handling Team spends two weeks preparing the ICBM for the test launch.

"We will install telemetry and explosive detonation chords onto the missile to be able to control it during the launch," Tech. Sgt. McElroy said.

While these airmen are working on the body of the missile, a team at the Munitions Storage Area work on the unarmed bomb part or joint test assembly (JTA).

The last stop for the missile is the Missile Maintenance Team.

This team installs the missile at the launch facility that's more than 60 feet underground.

"The reason why it's underground is because it's one of our only missiles that we have that are protected from second-strike capabilities. If another country were to send a bomb down, it's encased by a concrete wall we have upstairs," explained Tech. Sgt Daniel Garcia, Facilities Maintenance Supervisor.

Keeping a watchful eye is the Launch Support Center that runs through many tests to ensure they can communicate with teams underground like the Missile Combat Crew who will be turning the keys to launch the missile.

"It's exciting. it's cool to know that you're actually going to launch a missile. It's something you don't want to do in your normal everyday life, but this is one of those times where it's okay," said 1st Lt. Mitcheal Narim, Task Force Combat Crew Commander.

These crews don't just sit around waiting to turn the keys, however.

First Lt. Claire Waldo explains their daily duties:

1st Lt. Claire Waldo explains duties

Airmen say all of these steps and tests are in part to remind our enemies and adversaries of our capabilities.

"For deterrence to be credible, you have to announce that here's our weapons system. It works as we designed it and it still works even though it's aging, it still works as it's designed. We have the will, we have the intent, we have the training, we have the forces that are able to employ it professionally, safely, and reliably," explained Col. Omar Colbert of the 576th Flight Test Squadron.

The launch is anticipated shortly after midnight, weather permitting.