VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. --
Unarmed Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile tests are nothing new to Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, and the Western Range. Since its activation in 1991, the 576th Flight Test Squadron has partnered with Task Forces from the various Missile Wings to conduct ICBM test launches – a mission which continues to this day under Air Force Global Strike Command and with range support provided by the 30th Space Wing.
Typically, a Task Force is comprised of a team of operators and a team of maintainers from one of the Missile Wings in AFGSC. Members might be chosen for their specific skillsets, seniority and experience, work-based merit, or just fit within the team, with those pieces coming together in an effort to best execute each launch mission with the 576 FLTS at Vandenberg.
Facing a compacted launch calendar and mitigating risk from a global pandemic, both the 576 FLTS and the GT 235 Task Force from the 90th Missile Wing at F.E. Warren AFB, Wyoming, have relied on adaptability within their teams to continue that test launch mission at Vandenberg.
“Historically, we utilize operators and maintainers from the Missile Wings,” said Maj. Mark Carter, 576th FLTS assistant director of operations. “Although we are still using maintainers from the 90th Missile Wing, this will be the first launch in recent history utilizing a crew of 576th FLTS operators.”
While this launch was done by an airborne crew from the 625th Strategic Operations Squadron aboard a Navy E-6, members of the 576 FLTS provided backup crew on the ground. While using 576 FLTS operators mitigates risk by lowering the number of Task Force team members required to travel, it also marks a significant first for 576 FLTS members like Capt. Tanner Popp, who describes all that is involved for those who are eligible to pull alerts and will make up the rotation of two-person operator teams.
“There’s about a week and a half of spin up and training,” Popp said. “We bring up the capsule and get it on alert. Then the maintainers install the Missile Guidance System (MGS), Reentry System (RS), and get the missile started up.
“From that point on, we will run the necessary commands and calibrations that the missile requires in order to be considered launch-ready, at which point we will be standing by for the launch sequence,” Popp added. “Following a successful missile launch, we then accomplish capsule shutdown and remove all classified material from the alert facility before heading home for some rest and recovery.”
The 576 FLTS operators work in conjunction with a maintenance team from the 90th Missile Wing out of F.E. Warren AFB, whose job is to deprocess the missile once it arrives at Vandenberg AFB. The Missile Maintenance Team from F.E. Warren was responsible for aiding the 576 FLTS Missile Handling Team with emplacing the missile downstage and for installing the Post-Boost Control System (PBCS) and the Re-Entry System.
In addition to their regular duties, GT 235 Task Force maintenance members are also helping fulfill some maintenance requirements for the next test launch while they are on site. For the next launch, they installed the PBCS, providing adaptability which helps Vandenberg AFB avoid having two overlapping maintenance teams on the installation at once, and streamlining Task Force construction in a higher-risk COVID environment.
Although the GT 235 Task Force team composition and roles were slightly different from the norm, the mission of ensuring professionally executed test launches remained the same – a testament to the men and women of the 576th FLTS and GT 235 Task Force members who continue to ensure the reliability of the nation’s ICBM program.
“For us on the missile maintenance side of the house, the launch is one of those things that you always look forward to,” said Staff Sergeant Andrew O’ Brien, 90th Missile Wing MMT Topsider. “It’s not something that everyone gets to do in their career, so it’s a pretty big deal in our world. Even in the midst of COVID where there was some uncertainty when we were going to be able to come out to execute this mission, we definitely appreciate it a little bit more now that we’re finally able to get out here and do it, and hopefully when they light that candle, we’ll watch it sail off into the distance and go back to our normal lives back up North.”