U.S. Test Launches ICBM Into Pacific as Part of Nuclear ‘Deterrence Mission’

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Military officials said the test launch of the Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile serves as a reminder that the U.S. can ‘deter twenty-first century threats.’

The U.S. Air Force test-launched an intercontinental ballistic missile into the Pacific Ocean neighborhood of its adversaries in China and North Korea late Thursday at a time of growing international concern that brewing tensions among nuclear powers could escalate into a new arms race.

Air Force Global Strike Command described the launch of the Minuteman III missile, which was unarmed, as “routine” and designed to reassure allies. But it also seemed to acknowledge the growing bellicose language from American adversaries in recent weeks.

Firing the missile was “intended to demonstrate that the United States’ nuclear deterrent is safe, secure, reliable and effective to deter twenty-first century threats,” the command said in a release.

“A test launch displays the heart of our deterrence mission on the world’s stage,” unit commander Air Force Gen. Thomas A. Bussiere said in a statement, “assuring our nation and its allies that our weapons are capable and our Airmen are ready and willing to defend peace across the globe at a moment’s notice.”

The missile’s payload, which for a real strike could carry thermonuclear warheads, flew more than 4,000 miles from Vandenberg Air Force Base on the California coast to the Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands.

Though the command said the launch “is not the result of current world events” and similar tests have taken place more than 300 times before, it comes at a time of growing concern about the potential for conflict involving nuclear weapons.

China has repeatedly warned of the dangers of a new arms race as it blasts U.S. political rhetoric that increasingly views Beijing as the signature threat around which America’s national security infrastructure must organize itself.

On Wednesday, a day before the launch, its English-language Global Times newspaper warned that “tension between China and the U.S. is worsening” due to an ongoing fracas over a surveillance balloon that President Joe Biden ordered shot down last week. It also noted growing concerns in Congress that Beijing is outpacing the U.S. in advancing its nuclear arsenal as America’s Cold War-era stockpile ages.

“This makes the toxic atmosphere of a new cold war swell further” and portends a new arms race, concluded the paper, which is not a direct mouthpiece for the Chinese Communist Party but is aligned with its views. U.S. officials and analysts believe it often publishes the more hardline sentiments that officials in Beijing chose not to say publicly.

It cited an unnamed military analyst who advocated for increased development of Chinese nuclear weapons and launch facilities “because the increasing strategic pressures and threats imposed by the U.S.” The analyst added, “China needs a powerful and convincing nuclear deterrent to make sure those hegemonic forces and their followers dare not offend and harm China’s national security, sovereignty, and the right of development.”

North Korea at a nighttime parade on Thursday boasted that it now possesses its largest number of nuclear missiles. After the Trump administration failed to broker any kind of detente with the hermit kingdom, leader Kim Jong Un has employed increased bellicose rhetoric focused on demonstrating his ability to deter and coerce using nuclear weapons.

And the threat of Russia employing lower-yield tactical nuclear weapons amid its invasion in Ukraine has forced European powers, particularly Germany, to balk at providing more potent weapons to Kyiv, such as tanks. Russian President Vladimir Putin also raised concerns when he ordered the deployment of a warship capable of bearing hypersonic nuclear warheads into international waters near the U.S.