Missile testing unit validates strategic deterrent

In preparation for an unarmed Minuteman III missile launch, 1st Lt. Kimberly Erskine, Missile Combat Crew commander at Malmstrom Air Force Base, practices procedures March 19, 2015, at Vandenberg AFB, California, in preparation for the launch of an unarmed Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile. Both F. E. Warren and Malmstrom AFB personnel actively worked with the 30th Space Wing and the 576th Flight Test Squadron to perform two test launches in less than a week, providing a cradle-to-grave evaluation of the system, which started at the missile wings and ended more than 6,000 miles away at a test range near Guam. (U.S. Air Force photo by Michael Peterson)

In preparation for an unarmed Minuteman III missile launch, 1st Lt. Kimberly Erskine, Missile Combat Crew commander at Malmstrom Air Force Base, practices procedures March 19, 2015, at Vandenberg AFB, California, in preparation for the launch of an unarmed Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile. Both F. E. Warren and Malmstrom AFB personnel actively worked with the 30th Space Wing and the 576th Flight Test Squadron to perform two test launches in less than a week, providing a cradle-to-grave evaluation of the system, which started at the missile wings and ended more than 6,000 miles away at a test range near Guam. (U.S. Air Force photo by Michael Peterson)

VADENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- The 576th Flight Test Squadron, which conducts Minuteman III launches from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, holds the unique distinction as the sole intercontinental ballistic missile test unit in the Department of Defense.

The 576th FLTS gathers valuable flight and equipment data from the ICBM tests, ensuring the weapons system remains operationally effective and reliable.

"I love the missile test mission; this mission is awesome," said Capt. Erik Holmstrom, 576th FLTS ICBM flight test manager. "We are the only ICBM test squadron in the Department of Defense and it is a tough task to make sure you get it right. The tests also demonstrate to our adversaries that this weapon system works and it assures our allies that they don't need to develop nuclear weapons because we have them, and they are very functional."

The unarmed Minuteman III missiles launched from Vandenberg AFB are taken from the missile fields at Malmstrom AFB, Montana; Minot AFB, North Dakota; or F. E. Warren AFB, Wyoming, and brought to Vandenberg AFB.

"The reentry vehicles used on our test launches do not have any nuclear components in them," said Capt. Joe Liles, 576th FLTS chief of ICBM field test management. "They are virtually identical to them in flight characteristics but the nuclear material is replaced with measurement equipment for gathering flight data."

Testing ICBMs is only a small part of what the flight test squadron does, and when not launching a Minuteman III ICBM, they are maintaining and upgrading the older test equipment and testing other sustainment and weapon system upgrades.

"A lot of people think our mission here is to conduct operational test launches when in fact that is only a quarter of our mission," said Liles. "We are responsible for testing every piece of equipment, either new or an upgrade that touches the Minuteman III weapon system. It could be anything from an upgrade on a communications system or a new vehicle that is built to support the ICBM fleet. We test it, evaluate it and provide our recommendation as to whether it should be used."

Although the 576th FLTS conducts the test launch, the missile launch crew is from the same base as the missile being tested.

"For test purposes we want to make it as operationally realistic as possible, so we bring the real operators, the real people who would use this system here," said Liles. "Another thing we are evaluating is their ability to use this system in the first place. If the operator can't use it then it doesn't work, even if it physically does work."

While the ICBM test mission serves primarily to test the reliability of ICBMs, it also provides a deterrent for potential adversaries.

"Through testing, we are able to accomplish three things," said Col. Kelvin Townsend, 576th FLTS commander. "First, we are able to validate the reliability, accuracy and performance of the weapon system. Secondly, we demonstrate the capability of America's land-based ICBM force through flight tests. Finally, we are able to identify potential issues with the weapon system early so as to ensure the Minuteman III weapon system is effective and sustainable."