Half-Century on Alert: Minuteman III turns 50

  • Published
  • By Dr. Jeremy Prichard
  • 20th Air Force Historian

The Air Force marks a significant milestone this year for the Minuteman III Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM).

Fifty years ago, on Aug. 19, 1970, Strategic Air Command placed the first flight of 10 Minuteman III ICBMs on alert at Minot Air Force Base, North Dakota, and shortly after its emplacement at the 741st Strategic Missile Squadron, Minuteman III has stood watch as the nation’s strategic deterrent.

This noteworthy occasion was the byproduct of the Air Force’s nine-year Minuteman Force Modernization Program governing the replacement of all deployed Minuteman I (A and B) ICBMs with either Minuteman II or Minuteman III missiles. The Air Force determined to replace the arsenal of Minuteman I ICBMs at the 91st Strategic Missile Wing at Minot AFB with the military branch’s latest weapon system, Minuteman III.

The Minuteman III was the first U.S. ICBM designed to carry the Multiple Independently targetable Re-entry Vehicle capability, or MIRV. This configuration allowed individual targeting upon release for each of the weapon’s three warheads.

Dating back to 1959, when matched against the Air Force’s previous on-alert ICBM systems—Atlas, Titan I, Titan II, Minuteman I, Minuteman II, and Peacekeeper—Minuteman III has dutifully stood guard more than one-third of that time compared to the combined service activation from those former programs. And it did so despite a projected service life of 10 years.

Contrary to that expectation, Minuteman III has served uninterrupted for 50 years, having undergone a series of life-extension programs to maintain viability. It still stands alert while development of its successor, the as-yet named Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent, continues.

“Until GBSD comes online fully, we must continue to take the actions necessary to ensure Minuteman III remains a viable deterrent for the Nation,” said Gen. Tim Ray, Air Force Global Strike Command commander. “24/7/365 our missiles remain on alert, lethal and ready, providing the deterrence necessary to allow the rest of the Nation to sleep peacefully at night. We all owe a large debt of gratitude to the missileers, maintainers, security forces and countless others, who held the watch over the past generation. However, the Minuteman III is 50-years-old. It’s time to modernize and bring on the GBSD.”

“My hat’s off to the Airmen across 20th Air Force who continue to operate, maintain, secure, and support Minuteman III after 50 years of service to the nation,” said Maj. Gen. Mike Lutton, 20th Air Force commander. “This is a proud moment worth reflecting upon—especially for the world’s most respected and feared global strike team.”

Located across five states, Minot AFB, Malmstrom AFB, Montana, and F. E. Warren AFB, Wyoming, Colorado and Nebraska, Minuteman III remains the most responsive leg of the nuclear triad.