U.S. Postpones Long Range Missile Test Amid Nuclear Tensions With Russia

In an effort to keep nuclear tensions from rising, the Biden Administration delayed Wednesday’s long-planned intercontinental ballistic missile test launch. The decision was a direct response to Russian President Vladimir Putin publicly directing Russia’s nuclear forces to go on a high alert status following his Feb. 24 invasion of neighboring Ukraine, U.S. officials said. “We have no intention in engaging in any actions that can be misunderstood or misconstrued,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said Wednesday. “We did not take this decision lightly, but instead to demonstrate that we are a responsible nuclear power.”

This missile test postponement demonstrates how dangerous relations between Russia and the U.S. have been in the midst of the current crisis in Ukraine. In coordination with NATO allies, the Biden Administration wants to keep Russia from escalating while maintaining deterrence on Moscow. The two nations’ thermonuclear weapon arsenals loom in the background every day the war continues.
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Out of concern that this could be interpreted to be a warning show of force, the U.S. military opted not to launch an ICBM. These tests require meticulously planned activities, which are often several years ahead of time. The Kremlin could have taken it wrongly, so Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin indefinitely pushed it back. “It is a wise and prudent decision by the secretary to send a strong clear, unambiguous message to Mr. Putin, how seriously we take our nuclear responsibilities at a particularly tense time,” Kirby said. “Tension, I might add, that Mr. Putin contributed to, with this unhelpful, unnecessary rhetoric with respect to alert status on his nuclear posture.”

On Sunday, Putin ordered his nuclear forces to have “special combat readiness” after the U.S. and European allies levied sweeping economic sanctions on Russia for its unprovoked assault on Ukraine. U.S. government and independent analysts said it brought no immediate change in the status of Russia’s strategic arsenal, but the nuclear saber-rattling stoked fears around the globe. “This is definitely a good time for the U.S. to act as the adult in the room and do nothing that smacks of escalation,” said James Stavridis, a retired U.S. admiral and former NATO supreme commander.

Vandenberg Space Force Base is located north of Santa Barbara in California. This base hosts routine tests for the Minuteman III missile fleet. This 60-foot, unarmed nuclear weapon, which is equipped with a test vehicle for reentry, launches into outer space. The missile arcs around 4,200 miles, and hits a target area near the Kwajalein Atoll (Marshall Islands). These tests are done to make sure the Minuteman continues to fulfill its mission. This 40-year-old nuclear-tipped missile is capable of carrying warheads that can be used to destroy cities to any location on the earth in just 30 minutes.

Although the White House hopes that it can end violence in Ukraine diplomatically, they have not been able to do so. However, months of discussions with Moscow have not succeeded in disarming Putin. While the U.S. and NATO have not been involved in the conflict in Ukraine, they have given more than $1B in military assistance to this former Soviet-bloc country, which is now facing a Russian assault from land, air and sea.

Rose Gottemoeller (ex-Deputy Secretary General of NATO, retired diplomat from the United States), said that postponing test launches was prudent. Russia, despite Putin’s heated rhetoric, has also demonstrated nuclear restraint by opting not to launch strategic bomber flights during its military assault on Ukraine, she said. “Such flights had become quite regular in the run-up to the invasion,” Gottemoeller said.

With the Russian military facing logistical problems, and Ukrainian forces resisting with stiff resistance, the Russian advance in Ukraine seems to be slow than anticipated. There are widespread allegations that Russian forces have been targeting civilians by launching random attacks against densely populated places. As of March, 875,000 Ukrainian refugees fled to Ukraine because of the bombardment. 2 according to UNHCR.

If Putin’s forces continue to be bogged down fighting a Ukrainian army that is outgunned and outnumbered, some experts worry the danger of a wider, more catastrophic confrontation will only rise. “The risk of nuclear war is higher than it has been in decades,” said Stephen Young of the nonprofit Union of Concerned Scientists. “With tensions so high, any misstep by the West could lead to devastating consequences, particularly given the warnings Putin has already issued. The Pentagon was wise to delay this test, and should seek other ways to reduce the chances of miscalculation.”


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