According to a confidential assessment by the Pentagon's Defense Intelligence Agency, North Korea will be able to field a reliable, nuclear-capable intercontinental ballistic missile as early as next year. (The Washington Post)

The U.S. Air Force flexed its ability to launch global strikes early Wednesday morning, firing an intercontinental ballistic missile over the Pacific in a routine test amid growing tension between the United States and North Korea.

The Air Force’s Global Strike Command launched the unarmed Minuteman III missile at 2:10 a.m. local time from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., on a westward trajectory over the Pacific Ocean. The suborbital missile traveled 4,200 miles, reaching the Kwajalein Atoll, an Air Force statement said.

Kwajalein is a thin band of atolls in the Marshall Islands and the site of past nuclear testing. The range of the Minuteman III is about 8,100 miles, though its exact range is classified.

Joe Thomas, a spokesman with the command, stressed Wednesday that the tests are done four times a fiscal year and are scheduled between three and five years in advance, and not done in response to any particular action from an adversary like North Korea.

This was the fourth and final test this year and yielded data that will be harnessed for the next round of testing, he told The Washington Post.


An unarmed Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile launches during an operational test at 2:10 a.m. at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., on Wednesday. Aug. 2, 2017. (U.S. Air Force/Senior Airman Ian Dudley)

The Air Force routinely tests for the reliability of aging Minuteman III missiles, said James McKeon, a nuclear weapons analyst at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, a Washington think tank. The program is more than 50 years old but has gone through rounds of modernization, McKeon said.

McKeon also stressed the routine nature of these launches, though he said North Korea does have a tendency to frame most U.S. military action, like training exercises in South Korea and tests such as this one, as provocation.

Wednesday’s launch is another show of force in an expanding galaxy of tests, posturing and signals flowing between Washington, Seoul, Pyongyang and Beijing as North Korea’s nuclear program rapidly matures.

On July 28, North Korea launched an ICBM into the Sea of Japan to demonstrate growing reach of its missile technology. The missile was possibly capable of reaching Chicago and perhaps New York on a normal trajectory, experts said.

“By threatening the world, these weapons and tests further isolate North Korea, weaken its economy, and deprive its people,” President Trump said in a statement. “The United States will take all necessary steps to ensure the security of the American homeland and protect our allies in the region.”

That test came just weeks after North Korea fired its first ICBM on July 4 in Asia, and the country has launched 14th ballistic missiles this year alone.

In response two days later, two U.S. supersonic B-1 bombers flew over the Korean Peninsula as part of a joint exercise with Japan and South Korea.

On Sunday, U.S. forces sent up a medium-range ballistic missile from Alaska that was detected, tracked and intercepted over the Pacific using the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense System. The system’s use at U.S. bases in South Korea is commonly criticized by North Korean and Chinese officials as a belligerent gesture.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Tuesday called for a dialogue with North Korea, telling reporters the United States was not seeking a regime change.

“We are trying to convey to the North Koreans: ‘We are not your enemy, we are not your threat. But you are presenting an unacceptable threat to us, and we have to respond.’ ”

Tillerson is scheduled to attend next week’s Southeast Asia summit in the Philippines that is expected to discuss concerns about North Korea, the Associated Press reported.

McKeon said the nuclear policy community, both in and out of government, has been surprised by the recently quickening pace of weapons development in North Korea.

“Their scientists have done herculean things despite sanctions. On the current trajectory, there is no doubt over the next couple of years North Korea will mate a nuclear warhead with a missile,” McKeon said.

“They have proven us wrong time and time again.”

Read more:

Tillerson to North Korea: ‘We are not your enemy’

White House frustration grows with Tillerson over jobs for Trump allies