WHERE AGING MISSILES GO TO FINALLY BE MISSILES
Le dernier voyage de missiles en fin de carrière (aging vieillissant)
A quoi servent les missiles ? A tuer. A dissuader. A se vendre… mais que se passe-t-il lorsqu’ils deviennent dépassés ? Aux Etats-Unis, régulièrement, de vieux modèles sont retenus pour être lancés sur des cibles factices dans le Pacifique. Un moyen, pour les militaires, de vérifier tous leurs équipements et de montrer au monde l’efficacité de leur arsenal.
VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. — A Minuteman III missile inside the silo known as Foxtrot 2 in Montana was on alert for nearly half a century, ready to fire a more than 300-kiloton hydrogen bomb to an adversary anywhere in the world in about 30 minutes. That mission ended in February, when an Air Force crew ventured out onto the frozen Great Plains with a special crane and pulled it out of the hole. It was headed for sunny California. The aging missile had been selected for a test-fire, to prove it still worked and could hit a bull’s-eye — within several hundred feet, anyway — on a target in the South Pacific, 4,200 miles away.
2. About four times every year, the Air Force goes through the exercise of pulling an ICBM out of a silo, removing its nuclear warhead and sending it to Vandenberg Air Force Base near Lompoc for a test launch. The tests, which cost $18 million each, not only give the Air Force crucial data on the function of its aging missiles, but also send a clear international signal, complete with high-definition photography, of America’s continued ability to launch a nuclear strike. 3.The missile selected for testing had been chosen randomly in an improbable but apparently long-standing Air Force tradition: A map of missile sites was put on a wall and an officer was selected to throw a dart at it. The dart hit Foxtrot 2’s location, about 22 miles northeast of tiny Augusta, Mont., sometimes called the “last original cow town in the West.” “We can’t think of a more random method than that,” said Maj. Gen. Fred Stoss, operations commander for the Global Strike Command.
Stoss recalled that when it was his turn to select a missile, it took him a couple throws to even hit the list — a fact not to be taken as predictive of the Air Force’s actual targeting capabilities in the event of nuclear war.
LET IT GO
4. The missile was transported by truck to Vandenberg, where the Air Force has been testing its ICBMs for more than half a century. A dozen launch officers and maintenance men and women from the 341st Missile Wing at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana left their Arctic-like conditions and drove to Vandenberg for a visit that would span more than two months.
5.Once there, the test missile was reassembled, inserted into a silo and powered up. The missile hardware dates to the 1960s, the same era when the U.S. aerospace industry built the Apollo spacecraft that took men to the moon. Unlike the moon rockets, the ICBMs are still at work.
6.The missiles wait in their underground silos with the gyroscopes spinning inside their guidance systems around the clock, ready to launch in minutes if the president orders a nuclear strike. (The missile housed in Foxtrot 2 had clocked 32,500 on its guidance system by the time it was extracted and shipped to Vandenberg.)
7.Once at the test base in California, two officers from Malmstrom were assigned to an underground launch control center that resembles their actual launch facility in Montana — and the preparations began. It would be a full month later, just after midnight, when missile launch officers would issue a command to open a 110-ton door over the test silo. Simultaneously, they each turned keys on their underground consoles, sending an electronic signal to the 79,432-pound weapon: ignition. The missile roared powerfully out of the silo, a trail of flames and rocket exhaust arcing behind it in the night sky. A brief message appeared on their display screen: “Missile away.”
A SHORT FLIGHT
8. The missile lit up the California coastline for miles as it soared across the Pacific. Its powerful roar took about 20 seconds to travel from the silo to the closest observation point, where Air Force personnel, their families and visitors watched from metal bleachers.
9.The Minuteman has three solid rocket stages and a fourth liquid stage that finetunes the warhead’s trajectory before it is released. During the initial minutes of the test flight, the first two stages could be seen falling off into the Pacific, where they sank into the deep ocean. After a few minutes, the tiny white dot disappeared on its way to Kwajalein Atoll, the site of an Army garrison in the Marshall Islands that was captured from Japan in World War II.
10.On its trajectory across the globe, the missile reached 700 miles into space, nearly three times higher than the International Space Station. No dartboard was used for this job. A sophisticated software system designed the route to avoid a Chinese spacecraft and space junk that orbit Earth.
11.The dummy warhead re-entered Earth’s atmosphere about 28 minutes after it launched and plunged into the lagoon at Kwajalein. It was destroyed when it hit the water and the debris sank to the bottom.
12.Tracking systems at Mount Wilson in Los Angeles County, a Navy base in Hawaii and the Kwajalein Atoll had monitored the flight from start to finish. Air Force officials declared it a success. How close did it come to the bull’seye? That remained a secret.
A Minuteman-III missile in its silo.
In this image taken with a slow shutter speed and provided by the U.S. Air Force, an unarmed Minuteman 3 intercontinental ballistic missile launches during an operational test just after midnight, Wednesday, May 3, 2017, at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif.