Lab-designed instrumentation onboard unarmed missile

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An Air Force Global Strike Command unarmed Minuteman III ICBM launches during an operation test at 11:49 p.m. Feb. 23, at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. Photo courtesy of Chris Okula/U.S. Space Force photo by Chris Okula.

A joint test assembly (JTA) designed by Lawrence Livermore and Sandia national laboratories was recently onboard an unarmed Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), which was successfully launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. See the video.

The purpose of the ICBM test launch program is to validate and verify the safety, security, effectiveness and readiness of the weapon system, according to Air Force Global Strike Command.

Angela Cook, W87-0 project engineer and system manager at LLNL, said the components inside the W87-0 stockpile flight test, GT 237GM, are a combination of stockpile return hardware, mock hardware and instrumentation assemblies. The components are manufactured at the National Nuclear Security Administration’s production sites including Kansas City National Security Campus, Y-12 National Security Complex and Savannah River Site. The components are then assembled at the Pantex Plant.

“LLNL flies JTAs a few times a year and we collect data about system performance as part of the nuclear weapons stockpile stewardship program,” she said. “The data from these flight tests is analyzed by both LLNL and Sandia and incorporated in our respective annual warhead assessments for the W87-0.”

LLNL’s Air Force Reentry Systems Group, commonly known as the AFRS Group, is responsible for overseeing warhead disassembly and inspection of LLNL components, where selected weapons are reconfigured into JTAs and rebuilt to represent the original build to the maximum extent possible. However, all special nuclear material components are replaced with either surrogate material or instrumentation. 

Cook said the AFRS Group is committed to ensuring that the W87-0 stockpile is aging appropriately, and that it remains fully qualified and ready when the W87-0 becomes the first warhead fielded on the new Ground Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD) missile later this decade.

Team members who contributed to the successful flight test include: Austin Pabst, Lorne Stoops, Keenan Eves, Henry Teng, Mitchell Gubbins, Moira Mcintosh Foster, Luke Savage, Robert Baker, Cole Boyd, Jonathan Ward, Justin Diec, Andrew Rosenfeld and Marcus Freitas.