KIRTLAND AIR FORCE BASE, N.M. —

Fifty years ago, 1968 was a tumultuous year, from North Vietnam’s surprise “Tet Offensive” to Dr. King’s assassination, from race riots in major U.S. cities, to the first humans orbiting the moon. And in August of that year, three major powers conducted nuclear-related tests.

First, France conducted a nuclear test at the Mururoa atoll in the southern Pacific on the third of August, then the USSR conducted one in (then) Eastern Kazakh on the fifteenth. The sixteenth witnessed the first U.S. launch of an unarmed ICBM capable of carrying multiple independent targetable reentry vehicles, or MIRVs.

On Aug. 16, 1968, the United States Air Force launched a Minuteman III missile from Silo 32 at Cape Kennedy, Florida. Under the control of the 6555th Aerospace Test Wing, the missile soared down the Eastern Test Range and completed a successful five-thousand mile flight to its impact target near Ascension Island, a tiny volcanic island in the mid-Atlantic.

By 1970, a total of 17 Minuteman IIIs would be launched from the Eastern Test Range, with the last launched on Dec. 14, 1970. The range was phased out as an ICBM test facility in favor of moving all ICBM tests to Vandenberg AFB, California, where they are still launched today.

The development of the Minuteman III began with a research and development contract to the Boeing Company in July 1965. On Dec. 8, 1965, Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara approved development of the missile, officially called an LGM-30G, to increase the future capability of the weapon system. Based on the Minuteman II’s design, the Minuteman III grew out of a requirement to improve the third-stage motor and add the MIRV capability. The design for the Minuteman III had a larger, more powerful third stage than Minuteman I or II, and a post-boost stage capable of deploying MIRVs, providing greater target flexibility and serving as a force multiplier.

The 741st Strategic Missile Squadron at Minot AFB, North Dakota, became the first operational Minuteman III squadron in December 1970. As Minuteman III missiles were deployed, the Minuteman I and II missiles were removed from service at the bases transitioning to the new ICBM. Currently, there are a total 400 Minuteman IIIs on alert 24/7 at the three remaining operational bases, Minot; Malmstrom AFB, Montana; and F. E. Warren AFB, Wyoming.

The Minuteman weapon system was originally designed and fielded from the Ballistic Missile Office at Norton AFB, California. After the Base Realignment and Closure actions in 1995, the responsibility to develop and sustain all ICBM systems fell to the personnel of the Air Force Nuclear Weapons Center.

Under the center’s ICBM Systems directorate located at Hill AFB, Utah, they continue to sustain the Minuteman III and are currently developing its replacement, the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent.

“The Minuteman III has stood as the bulwark to the nation’s strategic deterrent force, on alert and ready for nearly fifty years,” said Col. George Farfour, vice commander, Air Force Nuclear Weapons Center. “Our Air Force Nuclear Weapons Center members are forging the link between the operational Minuteman III units in the field and the mission of maintaining a safe, reliable and effective weapon system that continues to preserve the most powerful deterrent capability in the world.”

Headquartered at Kirtland AFB, New Mexico, the Air Force Nuclear Weapons Center is responsible for synchronizing all aspects of nuclear materiel management on behalf of Air Force Materiel Command, in direct support of Air Force Global Strike Command. The center has about 1,100 personnel assigned to 18 locations worldwide.

Minuteman III:

Propulsion: Three-stage solid fuel rocket motors; post-boost stage for positioning re-entry vehicle is liquid-fueled

Weight: 76,000 lbs.

Range: 6,000+ miles

Maximum speed: Approx. 15,000 mph

Armament: One, two or three MK-12A or MK-21 warheads