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By Staff Sgt. Codie Trimble
8th Air Force/J-GSOC Public Affairs
This past week, a team of dedicated Airmen and Sailors took to the skies to fire an unarmed Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) over the Pacific Ocean during an Operational Test Launch, known as a Glory Trip.
Typically, Glory Trips utilize a standard launch control center with missileers underground to fire unarmed ICBMs. For this week’s Glory Trip, Air Force missileers and engineers from the 625th Strategic Operations Squadron alongside Navy aircrew from Fleet Air Reconnaissance Squadron FOUR (VQ-4) flew aboard a Navy E-6B Mercury, equipped with an Airborne Launch Control System (ALCS).
“ALCS provides the nation’s only survivable backup launch capability to our land-based ICBM force,” said Maj. Hayden McVeigh, ALCS deputy crew commander. “This capability enhances the lethality of the Minuteman III ICBM and greatly increases the deterrent value of our nuclear forces.”
The 625th Strategic Operations Squadron, a unit from Offutt Air Force Base consisting of missileers, engineers, missile maintenance Airmen, cyber operators, contractors, and civilians, were just one part of the crew participating in the Glory Trip. The Air Force team consisted of four missileers, responsible for running checklists and turning two keys to initiate the launch, and an engineer working as a test conductor who is communicating with the test controller back on Vandenberg Space Force Base.
Roughly four times a year, an ICBM is pulled at random from one of the three missile wings within Air Force Global Strike Command. That missile is then transported to Vandenberg Space Force Base, which is nestled on the southern California coastline, for an Operational Test Launch (OTL). OTLs are a way to test and evaluate the weapon system in as near to an operational environment as possible.
Glory Trips are not conducted on short notice. They are planned five years in advance and entail a great deal of planning before execution.
“The entire squadron came together months in advance to plan for this Glory Trip,” said Maj. Grazia Castagna, ALCS crew commander for the mission. “We worked with the 576th Flight Test Squadron and the U.S. Navy’s Strategic Communications Wing-One to prepare for this mission. Every single flight in the STOS has a role — our testing flight, our targeting flight and our test and analysis flight. It’s an honor to be a part of this mission and see the result of our squadron’s hard work.”
Equally important to the success of the mission is the Navy aircrew aboard the E-6B Mercury that enable the ALCS team to complete the launch. The E-6B is a highly modified Boeing 707, working as a communications relay and strategic airborne command post.
“We have a team of roughly 14 Sailors that enable the aircraft to perform its mission,” said Navy Lt. Cmdr. Chad Carlson, E-6B mission commander. “We have pilots, flight engineers, communication systems [officers], avionics aircrewmen and reels operators controlling the wire system in the aircraft. The Navy crew on this mission will provide all the communication capabilities to allow the ALCS crew to communicate with the ICBM.”
The unique part of working with the Navy for an ALCS-driven Glory Trip is the specific capability that the E-6B brings to the joint fight — there’s no other aircraft in the Navy inventory that gives the STOS the ability to launch an ICBM from an aerial platform.
“The 625th STOS provides the interoperability for us and increases the readiness of the platform itself,” said Carlson. “We’re constantly working with the STOS on different missions and having that crew coordination allows us to continue to enhance the lethality of this weapon system.”
For both the Navy and the 625th STOS, Glory Trips could be considered just another day for them, as they fly together on a weekly alert mission, ready to initiate a launch if called upon.
“We integrate with the Navy from start to finish on a test mission like this,” said Lt. Col. Brian Lane, 625th STOS commander. “We go through all the mission planning with them through mission execution and debrief. We then take those lessons learned and we apply them forward for both our test and combat operations mission sets. We’d like to show that we’ve validated the redundant weapon system of the airborne launch control system to the commander of Air Force Global Strike Command and ultimately the commander of United States Strategic Command.”
The 625th mission is more than just flying on an aircraft; they could be considered the last viable option to defend the country and employ the U.S.’s ICBM nuclear deterrence ability.
“The Glory Trip is a culmination of all the efforts of everybody in the STOS doing their job perfectly so we can get into our orbit and launch the missile on time,” said Capt. Ryan Saunders, ALCS test conductor. “It’s important that we assure our allies and deter our enemies through nuclear deterrence, and we do that through operational test launches.”