US Launches Ballistic Missile Test Amid Rising Tensions with North Korea

Air Force Test-Launches ICBM, April 26, 2017
An unarmed Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile launches during an operational test at 12:03 a.m., PDT, April 26, 2017, from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. (Image credit: Senior Airman Kyla Gifford/US Air Force)

The U.S. Air Force launched an unarmed intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) early this morning (April 26) in a successful test, military officials said.

The Minuteman III ICBM lifted off from California's Vandenberg Air Force Base at 3:03 a.m. EDT (0703 GMT; 12:03 a.m. local California time).

"Tonight's launch was an important demonstration of our nation's nuclear deterrent capability," Col. John Moss, commander of the Air Force's 30th Space Wing, said in a statement.

"Test launches like this one are vital to validating the effectiveness and readiness of our operational nuclear systems, so it is critical that they are successful," Moss added. "The men and women of the 30th Space Wing and Air Force Global Strike Command's 576th Flight Test Squadron did a fantastic job working together to make tonight's launch possible and successful."

The test came amid rising tensions with North Korea. Pyongyang conducted a missile test of its own on April 16, and some experts have speculated that the nation is gearing up to perform its sixth nuclear-weapons test soon as well. (North Korea's April 16 missile test, which failed, apparently involved a medium-range missile; the nation is working to develop ICBMs but may not possess them yet, experts say.)

A Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile launches on an unarmed test run from California’s Vandenberg Air Force Base just after midnight PDT on April 26, 2017. (Image credit: Senior Airman Ian Dudley/U.S. Air Force)

United Nations resolutions prohibit North Korea from engaging in both of these activities, but the rogue nation has often flouted such rules. Leader Kim Jong-un and other officials also routinely threaten the United States, South Korea and Japan — saying, for example, that North Korea will turn major American cities into "seas of fire."

An unarmed Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile streaks into the sky shortly after launching from California’s Vandenberg Air Force Base during an unarmed test on April 26, 2017. (Image credit: Michael Peterson/U.S. Air Force)

The United States is also currently sending the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson to the Korean Peninsula, and North Korea officials have threatened to sink the vessel.

The Air Force's Minuteman missile system has been operational for 60 years. The Minuteman III, a three-stage ICBM, can be outfitted with a nuclear warhead with a yield of 170 kilotons. (For comparison, the atomic bomb the United States dropped on the Japanese city of Hiroshima near the end of World War II had a yield of about 20 kilotons.)

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Mike Wall
Senior Space Writer

Michael Wall is a Senior Space Writer with and joined the team in 2010. He primarily covers exoplanets, spaceflight and military space, but has been known to dabble in the space art beat. His book about the search for alien life, "Out There," was published on Nov. 13, 2018. Before becoming a science writer, Michael worked as a herpetologist and wildlife biologist. He has a Ph.D. in evolutionary biology from the University of Sydney, Australia, a bachelor's degree from the University of Arizona, and a graduate certificate in science writing from the University of California, Santa Cruz. To find out what his latest project is, you can follow Michael on Twitter.