WASHINGTON – The U.S. Air Force is going ahead with two long-planned flight tests of intercontinental ballistic missiles next month despite efforts to damp tensions over North Korea’s nuclear ambitions and encourage fragile talks with South Korea.
Test launches of American missiles — without the nuclear warheads they can deliver — would be unlikely to cause much of a stir under regular circumstances. But they may prove sensitive coming the same month as the Winter Olympics, which are to be hosted by South Korea beginning Feb. 9. North Korea has agreed to send its athletes, and the U.S. has postponed joint military exercises with South Korea that normally would 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 the Minuteman III missiles, according to Capt. Anastasia Schmidt, a spokeswoman for the Air Force Global Strike Command, which manages ICBMs and long-range bombers.
Schmidt said the potential range of dates for tests “are typically not released this far in advance.” She referred more specific questions to Air Force Space Command, but a spokesman didn’t provide a comment.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, who has vowed to develop nuclear-armed ICBMs that can hit the U.S. mainland, began the new year boasting that he has a “nuclear button” on his desk. U.S. 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.
“U.S. 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 U.S. conducted four reliability tests of the Minuteman III. In the most recent one, on Aug. 2, a missile carrying a telemetry package used for operational testing traveled about 6,800 kilometers (4,200 miles) from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California to the Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands, the 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,” the Strike Command said in a statement.
The Air Force confirmed Thursday that it has deployed three B-2 stealth bombers to Guam. Lt. Gen. Kenneth McKenzie Jr., staff director for the Joint Chiefs, 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 U.S. remains “ready to fight tonight” if necessary, Pentagon spokeswoman Dana White said Thursday, invoking a slogan of American forces in South Korea.
Although the U.S. “should not provoke a crisis with North Korea, nor should it shut down its routine military activity for fear of offending North Korea,” said Sue Mi Terry, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a former senior CIA analyst on Korean issues. “It’s hard to imagine any connection between these fully lawful, routine tests and the current crisis over North Korea.”