US delays Minuteman ICBM test launch to calm nuclear tensions. How do ICBMs work?

The scheduled launch has now been delayed indefinitely.
Ameya Paleja
US is careful of its next movesU.S. Air Force photo by R.J. Oriez/Wikimedia

In a bid to calm soaring tensions with Russia, the U.S. military has decided to postpone the scheduled test launch of Minuteman III, its intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), Reuters reported

The U.S. move comes within days of Russian President Vladimir Putin putting the nation's nuclear forces on an alert. Russia's stance is being seen as a veiled threat to the West that the Ukrainian invasion could see an escalation to nuclear war, the most threatening scenario. The Pentagon has condemned Russia's actions but is now being careful of its own moves, should they be misconstrued. 

Minuteman III

The Minuteman weapon system was first deployed in the 1960s to provide a quick-reacting strategic deterrent weapon. With a range of 6,000 plus miles and cruising speeds of 15,000 mph (Mach 23), this nuclear-capable missile can be practically be fired at any major city in the world within a span of 30 minutes, Time reported

Like other inter-continental ballistic missiles, the Minuteman has three-stage rocket motors and is fuelled by solid propellant. In its second stage, the missile is practically in space and then makes a re-entry into the Earth's atmosphere and uses its rocket booster to orient itself towards the target. 

Ever since the production of the missiles stopped in 1978, the U.S. military has been running modernization programs for the missiles that have seen the rocket stages being upgraded, expansion of target options and improvements in accuracy and survivability, the U.S. Air Force website said

Scheduled Periodic Tests

To verify that the programs are delivering the intended results, the U.S. military periodically tests the Minutemen missiles, of which it has 400 in stock. An unarmed missile is fired from the Vandenberg Space Force Base in California and completes a 4,200-mile arc to hit the target in a test range at the Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands like the one U.S. Space Force tested in 2020

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Although many countries now possess ICBMs, none have actually been fired in combat to date.  Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby said that the U.S. delay in testing its weapon was to signal to Russia that it had "no intentions of engaging in any actions that could be misunderstood," rather demonstrating that the U.S. was a responsible nuclear power. 

Even as the Russian attack on Ukrainian cities has been indiscriminate, the country has demonstrated restraint by not launching strategic bomber flights, Rose Gottemoeller, a retired U.S. diplomat and former deputy secretary-general of NATO told Time. As the Russian invasion is bogged down further by the stiff resistance put by Ukraine, the risk of a nuclear war is higher. The U.S. decision to delay its launch is expected to simmer the tensions a bit. 

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