In an effort to comply with New START, a nuclear arms reduction treaty with Russia, the Air Force completed work to reconfigure all of the nation’s Minuteman III missiles, which are located at Malmstrom, F.E. Warren and Minot Air Force bases. The Minuteman III is the only intercontinental ballistic missile remaining in service.
The Minuteman ICBMs were previously configured to carry up to three multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles, MIRVs, that were each armed with a nuclear warhead and able to hit three separate targets from a single missile launch.
On June 16, maintainers at Malmstrom removed the last of the extra MIRVs on a Minuteman Missile in the 341st Missile Wing’s inventory.
The New START treaty, which entered into force Feb. 5, 2011, limits the number of deployed strategic warheads to 1,550, and limits the number of nuclear capable deployed and nondeployed delivery vehicles to 800. Of that, 700 can be deployed. These numbers must be met by Feb. 5, 2018.
The treaty doesn’t regulate how the U.S. or Russia choose to configure their strategic nuclear weapons within those limits.
The 2010 Nuclear Posture Review, a U.S. national security strategy document, dictated that all Minuteman III missiles be reconfigured to carry only one MIRV with one warhead.
“The United States will deMIRV all deployed ICBMs, so that each Minuteman III ICBM has only one nuclear warhead. ‘DeMIRVing’ will reduce each missile to a single warhead. This step will enhance the stability of the nuclear balance by reducing the incentives for either side to strike first,” the document stated.
In April, the Pentagon announced its implementation plan to meet the New START limits by reducing the ICBM force to 400 deployed missiles with 54 in warm status, meaning those silos will be maintained and communications systems remain in place so that the silo can be armed with a missile at any time.
Silos in warm status count toward the treaty limitation of 800 deployed and nondeployed launchers.
The Pentagon plan also includes 60 deployed nuclear-capable bombers and 240 deployed submarine-launched ballistic missiles. The Pentagon also plans to maintain 40 submarine launched ballistic missile tubes, 20 tubes on two submarines in overhaul and six heavy bombers that are nondeployed.
“This was the last Minuteman III in the Air Force to be ‘deMIRVed,’ and this is a major milestone in meeting the force structure numbers to comply with the New START requirements,” said Steve Ray, Air Force Global Strike Command missile maintenance division. “This is historic because we’ve had MIRVs in the field for more than 40 years, since 1970 when the first Minuteman III came on alert.”
The Air Force was the lead agency in the Minuteman reconfiguration, but multiple federal agencies were involved in the process.
Ray said the Air Force coordinated with the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, which maintains a database of where all missiles are located, with the Department of Energy for shipment of the weapons, and with U.S. Strategic Command, who must be notified of how many weapons they have supporting them at all times.
“At the base, it took a five-man missile mechanical team to go out and pull the top off the missile, and they were supported by a large security forces team and helicopters, which ensured safe transport to and from the base,” Ray said of the work completed at all three ICBM bases. “The missile operators also played a role, as they maintain command and control at the missile sites. Everyone at the heart of the missile operations team was involved. It was a real team effort.”
A team of 12 people at the weapons storage area at each base was involved in the process of disassembling and reconfiguring the system to a single re-entry vehicle, making sure the maintenance was done in a safe and secure manner, according to AFGSC.
“We’re reducing the number of weapons from a Cold War high in conjunction with the Russians,” Ray said. “To take these multiple independent reentry vehicles to a single reentry vehicle is a significant milestone in stability and arms control.”
Malmstrom is also in the process of eliminating the 50 ICBM silos from the former 564th Missile Squadron, which was deactivated in 2008. All of the squadron’s launch facilities will be demolished.
Russian inspectors verified April 9 that 18 ICBM launch facilities had been eliminated at Malmstrom.
The initial phase of elimination began in January.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Air Force Civil Engineering Center selected Bryan Construction Inc. of Colorado Springs, Colo., as the demolition contractor. Current estimates call for eliminating the 50 launch facilities, located in Toole, Pondera, Teton and Chouteau counties, by late 2014.
The contractor will eliminate the launch facilities by filling them with earth and gravel. Gravel fill is a more effective and environmentally friendly method of elimination that’s also faster and more economical than those used in the past under the original START treaty. The work doesn’t pose any threat to public safety or the environment, according to Malmstrom officials.
The verification immediately reduces the number of ICBM launchers the U.S. is accountable for under New START requirements.
After the April inspection, 16 more launch facilities had been completely demolished, according to Malmstrom officials. Those sites must remain undisturbed for 60 days and then they are removed from the U.S. launcher count under New START.
In total, 32 silos have been removed from the U.S. launcher count. Two more have been demolished but haven’t reached the 60-day mark for removal, according to Malmstrom officials.