The Minuteman III, Designed for 10 Years of Use, Celebrates its 50th Anniversary

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Missile maintainers with a Minuteman III at F.E. Warren AFB, Wyo. (U.S. Air Force photo)
Missile maintainers with a Minuteman III at F.E. Warren AFB, Wyo. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Lt. Col. David Faggard is the director of public affairs at Air Force Global Strike Command. The opinions expressed in this op-ed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of AFGSC.

Wednesday marks 50 years since America's Minuteman III Intercontinental Ballistic Missile was first placed on alert at Minot Air Force Base, North Dakota. Since then, Americans and their allies have slept peacefully at night because our airmen are watching over us.

This is particularly remarkable because the Minuteman III was initially designed for a lifespan of only 10 years, following the Minutemen IA, 1B and II beginning in the late 1950s. Now, as then, the missiles and the airmen operating, maintaining and securing them remain ready for anything, anywhere, at any time.

Currently, 10,600 Air Force Global Strike Command airmen have the watch, 24/7/365, operating America and its allies' only fleet of ICBMs ready to conduct long-range precision strikes.

Through the years, these airmen have stood alert diligently as conflict, terror and turmoil upset order across the globe. As the world has moved from bipolarity to a developing great-power competition, today's global security environment is more complex, dynamic and volatile than ever before.

"I've grown up around this missile system my entire career," said Lt. Gen. Anthony Cotton, the Air Force's senior missileer and deputy commander of Air Force Global Strike Command. He first started working with missiles in 1986.

"We've seen the enemy change over time; however, the vigilance of the women and men securing, maintaining, sustaining and operating Minuteman has remained constant. They provide professional and dedicated over-watch and are the foundation of our national security," he added.

Spread across 33,600 square miles of Montana, North Dakota, Wyoming, Nebraska and Colorado, these nuclear airmen continue to remain poised, professional and ready to provide America's leaders with the most responsive leg of the nuclear triad. The ICBMs, weighing in at 79,000 pounds and capable of speeds over 15,000 mph, are the nation's "ace in the hole."

With missiles dispersed in hardened facilities underground, the airmen -- some underground and many topside -- responded magnificently to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, pulling the longest alerts in history while incurring personal and professional sacrifice.

The airmen go largely unnoticed in the public's eye due to their isolated location, meticulous attention to detail in mission execution, and limited numbers of public engagements due to operational security. They don't seek glory or the spotlight.

The fleet is often referred to as "the cornerstone of the security structure of the free world," providing protection from existential threats and deterrence to strategic attack, while also providing the necessary opportunity for freedom of movement and maneuver around the world.

The Minuteman III continues to pave the way for security, stability and global operations, now and in the future.

The missile is 50 years old, though, and as commanders point out, maintaining the weapon can be difficult due to age. Parts and components have become obsolete because original manufacturers may no longer be in business. Despite these challenges, it continues to be an effective deterrent, remaining safe, secure and lethal.

The Minuteman III will be with the U.S. Air Force until at least the 2030s, when the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent begins its debut protecting America.

The readiness of the systems are tested often, most recently on Aug. 4 when an unarmed missile was remotely launched at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California from an Airborne Launch Control System flying overhead.

"Until GBSD comes online fully, we must continue to take the actions necessary to ensure Minuteman III remains a viable deterrent for the nation," said Gen. Tim Ray, AFGSC commander. "24/7/365, our missiles remain on alert, lethal and ready, providing the deterrence necessary to allow the rest of the nation to sleep peacefully at night. We all owe a large debt of gratitude to the missileers, maintainers, security forces and countless others, who held the watch over the past generation. However, the Minuteman III is 50 years old. It's time to modernize and bring on GBSD."

-- The opinions expressed in this op-ed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Military.com. If you would like to submit your own commentary, please send your article to opinions@military.com for consideration.

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