Air Force Global Strike Command met a major milestone June 16, when maintainers at Malmstrom Air Force Base, Montana, removed the last multiple independently targetable reentry vehicle in the Air Force intercontinental ballistic missile inventory from a Minuteman III.
The reentry vehicle is the portion of the missile that houses the nuclear warhead. Re-configuring the missile to carry only a single reentry vehicle helps bring the Air Force towards compliance with the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty and comply with direction from the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review, Steve Ray, Air Force Global Strike Command missile maintenance division, said.
“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,” Ray said. “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 New START, signed by the United States and Russia in April 2010 and entered into force on Feb. 5, 2011, limits the number of deployed strategic warheads to 1,550, and limits the number of nuclear capable deployed and non-deployed delivery vehicles to 800. Of that, 700 can be deployed. These numbers must be met by Feb. 5, 2018.
“The NST sets treaty limits on the number of deployed strategic warheads and strategic delivery vehicles each party to the treaty is allowed, but does not direct the composition of that party’s strategic assets,” Kenneth Vantiger, AFGSC senior arms control analyst, said.
It was the 2010 Nuclear Posture review which dictated that all MMIIIs go to a single reentry vehicle. It states:
“The United States will deMIRV all deployed ICBMs, so that each Minuteman III ICBM has only one nuclear warhead. (A ‘MIRVed’ ballistic missile carries Multiple Independently targetable Reentry Vehicles (MIRVs). ‘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.”
In April of this year, the U.S. Administration adopted the baseline NST implementation plan that the Air Force has been advocating since 2010, Vantiger said.
That plan calls for the U.S. forces to go to 400 deployed ICBMs with a single reentry vehicle, 60 deployed nuclear-capable bombers, and 240 deployed submarine-launched ballistic missiles. Non-deployed forces will consist of 54 ICBM launchers (silos not containing a missile), 40 SLBM launch tubes (20 tubes on two submarines in non-deployed status for overhaul) and six heavy bombers for a total of 100 non-deployed launchers and heavy bombers. This balanced force structure fully supports U.S. national security objectives, including strategic stability and deterrence, extended deterrence guarantees, allied assurance, and the ability to implement the President’s nuclear weapons employment strategy.
While this final deMIRV was part of meeting NPR and New START requirements, Ray said the Air Force has been moving toward single reentry vehicles on all MMIIIs for some time.
“F.E. Warren had actually already converted to all single reentry vehicles before the New START was even signed,” he said. “This was just one part of several actions we’ll be doing to meet New START requirements.”
While the Air Force was the primary agency responsible for overseeing the deMIRV, it took multiple agencies to make this process happen, Ray said. Coordination was done 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,” he said. “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.”
Being a part of that team was something the maintainers and others were very proud of, Assistant Noncommissioned Officer in Charge of Missile Maintenance Teams at Malmstrom AFB, Master Sgt. Joshua Schoenbein, said.
“It is an honor and a privilege to be a part of something this big in the ICBM community to comply with the new START requirements,” he said. “It feels awesome to complete the deMIRV program, and I know the technicians couldn’t be happier to finish and move on to the next program whatever it might be.”
Schoenbein added, “Overall, it takes many people and hours of planning and work to accomplish even one mission.”
From munitions technicians at the weapons storage area and members of the missile maintenance team to security forces members, a convoy response force and helicopter support, everyone has a role in making the mission a success, he said.
Back at the base, Master Sgt. Jason Thompson, NCOIC of weapons maintenance at Malmstrom AFB, oversaw the team which did the disassembly of the MIRV.
“It’s a great historical event, especially for nuclear weapons technicians, to be a part of,” Thompson said. “We’re a relatively small career field, so to be a part of something so significant is a great morale builder for the Airmen.”
A team of 12 people at the weapons storage area were involved in the process of disassembling and reconfiguring the system to a single reentry vehicle, making sure the maintenance was done in a safe and secure manner.
“There were numerous safety measures in place during the entire process, and there was a lot of coordination between security forces and maintenance personnel to move the weapon from the missile to here for us to do the maintenance,” Thompson said. “That ties back to the significance of our Airmen being a part of this. We put a lot of special trust in our 18 or 19-year-old Airmen to do this type of maintenance, where in other countries it’s left to the officers to do.”
In addition to the hard work by the maintenance teams throughout AFGSC who worked the deMIRV process, Ray said multiple agencies worked together to make it a success.
“It takes a lot of planning and teamwork both at the base and the headquarters to make this happen in a safe, secure manner while still meeting our other mission requirements,” he said.
Those who worked the process should be proud of their accomplishments, Ray said, because they’re a part of history that will help maintain stable deterrence for the U.S. and its allies.
“We’re reducing the number of weapons from a Cold War high in conjunction with the Russians,” he said. “To take these multiple independent reentry vehicles to a single reentry vehicle is a significant milestone in stability and arms control.”