On Aug. 16, 1968, the Air Force launched the first Minuteman III missile into the Eastern Test Range off the coast of Florida.
The intercontinental ballistic missile was state-of-the-art with multiple independently targeted reentry vehicles. It was needed to cement nuclear deterrence of the Soviet Union during a time of high tensions in the Cold War.
At the time, there were 500,000 U.S. service members in Vietnam. The Soviets brutally put down a move to freedom in Czechoslovakia. North Korea took the USS Pueblo. China was at the height of Mao’s Cultural Revolution.
“Those same Minuteman IIIs are still in our inventory,” Air Force Gen. Paul J. Selva told the Air Force Association’s Mitchell Institute breakfast here today.
U.S. Nuclear Enterprise
Selva, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, discussed nuclear deterrence, missile defense and space, and why it is important to invest in the nuclear enterprise.
“Were it not for the exceptional airmen who man those systems and the civilians in the depots who maintain them, the Minuteman III would, long ago, have exited our inventory,” Selva said.
The first Minuteman III went on alert in 1970, and the weapon has been the heart of nuclear deterrence since.
The missile was designed for an operational life of 30 years. Due to the skill of the maintainers and those who handle “the physics packages” -- the weapons themselves -- the Minuteman II has served 50 years.
The entire nuclear triad needs recapitalization, the vice chairman said. ICBM replacements are one part of it, but so is building the Columbia-class ballistic missile submarine and a new bomber. The recapitalizing and modernizing of nuclear command and control and detection systems also is required, he said.
And, there has to be a discussion of deterrence itself, Selva said.
“That we not miss a critical key element of nuclear deterrence … that nuclear deterrence is about the capability, the will and the capacity to respond in kind, and the declaratory statement that says we will do so,” he said.
All of those issues, Selva said, are discussed in the Nuclear Posture Review.
During the Cold War, the United States maintained its nuclear deterrence capability, Selva said, noting the nation must also maintain that in this new era.
The current nuclear triad is safe, secure, reliable and ready, “but that is not a birthright,” the general said.
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(Follow Jim Garamone on Twitter: @GaramoneDoDNews)