Ten members of a Russian Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty delegation watched as the Air Force destroyed a Utah-built Peacekeeper missile stage in the west desert Tuesday.
The 3:50 p.m. demolition was the first elimination of an inter-continental ballistic missile (ICBM) rocket stage since START was ratified in December. A second Peacekeeper rocket motor stage is scheduled for destruction Thursday.START does not require ICBM stages to be destroyed but does give delegates from the former Soviet Union authority to examine the rocket stages and observe the destruction when one is destroyed, said Kathy Morris, a spokeswoman for the Arms Control Office at Hill Air Force Base. American treaty delegates have the same prerogative should a similar event take place in Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan or the Ukraine, which are all parties to the treaty.
The afternoon rocket motor burn took place at the Oasis Conversion and Elimination Facility, off the west shores of the Great Salt Lake. Hill is the storage depot for most of the Peacekeeper rocket motors not in active missile silos. Oasis is the only location in the United States approved for ICBM destruction.
Explosives experts from Hill affixed an explosive charge on the 27-foot-long rocket stage designed to split the motor casing apart and ignite the 98,000 pounds of rocket fuel inside. After the explosive charge detonated, the rocket fuel burned intensely for about one minute and then smoldered for another 10 minutes beneath a towering plume of white smoke.
The Russian delegation watched the burn from an observation overlook on Bug Hill, about two miles west of the burn site.
Lt. Matt Decker, arms control spokesman at Hill, said officials were not surprised when the Russians responded to the invitation to watch the burn. "It's significant having them here because it shows the level of cooperation between the two sides," he said.
Before the blast, the Russians were allowed to measure the booster and check its serial number before retreating to the observation point.
Whether the Russian delegation will stay for Thursday's burn has not been announced. "They don't tell us until after we finish (Tuesday's burn) whether they intend to stay," Morris said. "We just anticipate that they will."
Peacekeepers are the deadliest ICBMs in the United States nuclear arsenal, capable of carrying 10 warheads that can each seek its own target. Peacekepers were first tested successfully in 1983 and cost $70 million each.
The motor destroyed Tuesday was never operational but was manufactured so missile crews could monitor and test the solid fuel inside as the motor aged. Morris said the motor was destroyed because it had outlived its testing life.
The Air Force lists 50 of the 71-foot-tall Peacekeepers in its inventory. All three of the missile's rocket stages were manufactured in Utah - two by Thiokol and one by Hercules.