Here's Why The Air Force Hit Self-Destruct On A Multimillion-Dollar ICBM During Testing

Military Tech

The Air Force was forced to terminate an unarmed Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile Tuesday morning in response to an unsafe "anomaly" that emerged during a test, according to Air Force Global Strike Command.


The 30th Space Wing at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California ordered the destruction of the $7 million ICBM early Tuesday, eliminating it over the Pacific Ocean. Global Strike Command refused to comment as the incident is under investigation.

Air Force Gen. John Hyten, head of U.S. Strategic Command, described the test as "perfect," at least until "somewhere in flight, we saw an anomaly."

"The anomaly was going to create an unsafe flight condition, so we destroyed the rocket before it reached its destination," he said at the 2018 STRATCOM Symposium Wednesday, according to Military.com. "It was the smart thing to do."

Tests occur regularly, but failures are much more infrequent. Hyten told his audience that the last failure happened in 2011, with the one before that occurring in 2009.

Explaining that this is a "rare thing that is in the missile business," Hyten said that "now we have to go figure out what happened."

An unarmed U.S. Air Force Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile launches during an operational test May 3, 2017, at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif.U.S. Air Force/Airman 1st Class Daniel Brosam

One possibility, and potentially the most likely given the STRATCOM's chief's characterization of the incident as the emergence of an "unsafe flight condition," is that the missile veered off course, forcing a Mission Flight Control Officer's hand. The motto among the MFCOs is reportedly "track 'em or crack 'em," according to Popular Mechanics, which sent reporters to observe one of these tests firsthand.

In the initial phase of flight, the MFCO may have only a matter of seconds to make the critical decision to terminate a missile, making that individual the sole decision maker for the weapon's fate. In the later phases, the officer might act on the consent of his/her superiors.

If the officer detects that the missile will cross any predetermined safety lines, that individual will reportedly "send a function," causing the missile to crack and spiral into the ocean.

While Tuesday's decision to destroy the ICBM was purportedly "smart," not every executed self-destruct sequence is intentional.

Human error, specifically the pressing of the wrong button, caused a test of a U.S. missile defense system to end in failure last July. A tactical datalink controller on the destroyer USS John Paul Jones accidentally identified an incoming ballistic missile as a friendly system, resulting in the initiation of a self-destruct sequence for the SM-3 interceptor, Defense News reported at the time.

The initial report from the U.S. Missile Defense Agency said that the interceptor missed the target, revealing that the "planned intercept was not achieved." During a later test in January, an SM-3 Block IIA interceptor fired from an Aegis Ashore missile defense facility in Hawaii also failed to achieve the desired intercept.

Hyten said that Tuesday's test failure is exactly why the U.S. tests its systems. "We have to make sure that things work. We learn more from failures than we do successes," he said, adding that the unsuccessful test does not weaken America's offensive capabilities.

"I have a full complement of ICBMs on alert," he explained.

Read more from Business Insider

WATCH NEXT:

Thirteen Marines have been formally charged for their alleged roles in a human smuggling ring, according to a press release from 1st Marine Division released on Friday.

The Marines face military court proceedings on various charges, from "alleged transporting and/or conspiring to transport undocumented immigrants" to larceny, perjury, distribution of drugs, and failure to obey an order. "They remain innocent until proven guilty," said spokeswoman Maj. Kendra Motz.

Read More Show Less
Arizona Army National Guard soldiers with the 160th and 159th Financial Management Support Detachments qualify with the M249 squad automatic weapon at the Florence Military Reservation firing range on March 8, 2019. (U.S. Army/Spc. Laura Bauer)

The recruiting commercials for the Army Reserve proclaim "one weekend each month," but the real-life Army Reserve might as well say "hold my beer."

That's because the weekend "recruiting hook" — as it's called in a leaked document compiled by Army personnel for the new chief of staff — reveal that it's, well, kinda bullshit.

When they're not activated or deployed, most reservists and guardsmen spend one weekend a month on duty and two weeks a year training, according to the Army recruiting website. But that claim doesn't seem to square with reality.

"The Army Reserve is cashing in on uncompensated sacrifices of its Soldiers on a scale that must be in the tens of millions of dollars, and that is a violation of trust, stewardship, and the Army Values," one Army Reserve lieutenant colonel, who also complained that his battalion commander "demanded" that he be available at all times, told members of an Army Transition Team earlier this year.

Read More Show Less

According to an internal Army document, soldiers feel that the service's overwhelming focus on readiness is wearing down the force, and leading some unit leaders to fudge the truth on their unit's readiness.

"Soldiers in all three Army Components assess themselves and their unit as less ready to perform their wartime mission, despite an increased focus on readiness," reads the document, which was put together by the Army Transition Team for new Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville and obtained by Task & Purpose. "The drive to attain the highest levels of readiness has led some unit leaders to inaccurately report readiness."

Lt. Gen. Eric J. Wesley, who served as the director of the transition team, said in the document's opening that though the surveys conducted are not scientific, the feedback "is honest and emblematic of the force as a whole taken from seven installations and over 400 respondents."

Those surveyed were asked to weigh in on four questions — one of which being what the Army isn't doing right. One of the themes that emerged from the answers is that "[r]eadiness demands are breaking the force."

Read More Show Less

If you've paid even the slightest bit of attention in the last few years, you know that the Pentagon has been zeroing in on the threat that China and Russia pose, and the future battles it anticipates.

The Army has followed suit, pushing to modernize its force to be ready for whatever comes its way. As part of its modernization, the Army adopted the Multi-Domain Operations (MDO) concept, which serves as the Army's main war-fighting doctrine and lays the groundwork for how the force will fight near-peer threats like Russia and China across land, air, sea, cyber, and space.

But in an internal document obtained by Task & Purpose, the Army Transition Team for the new Chief of Staff, Gen. James McConville, argues that China poses a more immediate threat than Russia, so the Army needs make the Asia-Pacific region its priority while deploying "minimal current conventional forces" in Europe to deter Russia.

Read More Show Less

As the saying goes, you recruit the soldier, but you retain the family.

And according to internal documents obtained by Task & Purpose, the Army still has substantial work to do in addressing families' concerns.

Read More Show Less