Sat, Jan 13, 2018 - Page 6 News List

US Air Force sticking to ICBM test-flight plan

Bloomberg

The US Air Force is going ahead with two long-planned tests of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) next month, despite efforts to damp tensions over North Korea’s nuclear ambitions and encourage fragile talks with South Korea.

Test launches of US missiles — without the nuclear warheads they can deliver — would be unlikely to cause much of a stir under regular circumstances, but they might prove sensitive coming the same month as the Winter Olympics, which are to be hosted by South Korea beginning on Feb. 9.

North Korea has agreed to send its athletes to the Games and the US has postponed joint military exercises with South Korea that would normally begin next month.

“There are two launches currently scheduled for February that have been scheduled for three to five years” to test the reliability and accuracy of Minuteman III missiles, US Air Force Global Strike Command spokeswoman Captain Anastasia Schmidt said.

Schmidt said the potential range of dates for tests “are typically not released this far in advance.”

She referred more specific questions to US Air Force Space Command, but a spokesman did not provide a comment.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, who has vowed to develop nuclear-armed ICBMs that can hit the US mainland, began the year boasting that he has a “nuclear button” on his desk.

US President Donald Trump countered on Twitter that his nuclear button was “much bigger and more powerful.”

Trump has since encouraged the limited talks between the two Koreas, calling them a “big start” and saying it would be “great for humanity” if something beyond cooperation in the Winter Games resulted.

“US ICBM tests would be an irritant and a propaganda opportunity for North Korea, but by themselves they should not derail talks or the prospects for reducing tensions,” said Joseph Cirincione, president of the San Francisco-based Ploughshares Fund, which seeks to reduce nuclear weapon stockpiles. “The North Koreans care much more about the conventional military exercises on their border than ICBM tests.”

Last year, the US conducted four reliability tests of the Minuteman III.

In the most recent one, on Aug. 2 last year, a missile carrying a telemetry package used for operational testing traveled about 6,800km from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California to the Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands, US Air Force Space Command said in a statement.

As many as four test launches are scheduled each fiscal year “to determine and verify accuracy and reliability of the ICBM weapon system,” US Air Force Global Strike Command said in a statement.

In related news, the US Air Force on Thursday confirmed that it had deployed three B-2 stealth bombers to Guam.

Lieutenant General Kenneth McKenzie Jr, staff director for the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters at the Pentagon that “you would be wrong to view the bomber deployment within the single lens of what it means to the Korean Peninsula. It affects allies across the Pacific.”

Still, the Pentagon’s moves send a signal that, even amid efforts to dial back tensions, the US remains “ready to fight tonight” if necessary, Pentagon spokeswoman Dana White said on Thursday, invoking a slogan of US forces in South Korea.

“We can’t reschedule every military exercise and routine missile test just because the North Koreans are cantankerous, because they’re always cantankerous,” Tom Karako, a missile analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said in an e-mail. “Besides, reminding allies and potential adversaries of the US conventional and nuclear deterrent isn’t such a bad thing.”

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