WASHINGTON ― Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has again ordered the Pentagon to postpone a planned test launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile, this time amid increased tension with China over Taiwan, according to a department and a congressional source.
“This is a long-planned test. It will be rescheduled in future at a time of our choosing,” a defense official told Defense News.
It’s the second delay for the Minuteman III test after Austin ordered one in March be called off to quell tension with Russia over its invasion of Ukraine. The unarmed missile was due to be fired from Vandenberg Space Force Base, California, and splash down at the Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands.
The Pentagon’s decision to delay the test came as China conducted “precision missile strikes” Thursday in waters off Taiwan’s coasts as part of military exercises that have raised tension in the region following a visit by U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
White House national security spokesman John Kirby formally announced the delay in a briefing Thursday afternoon, calling it “the responsible thing to do” to show how serious the United States is about easing tension with China.
Kirby condemned China’s overnight launch of an estimated 11 ballistic missiles near Taiwan as “irresponsible and at odds with the long-standing goal to maintain peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait.”
Kirby stressed that the ICBM postponement would last a short time, later suggesting it would be “a couple of weeks.” He said a new date is already set for the test.
The shortness of the delay means the nation’s nuclear readiness will not be affected, Kirby said.
“The decision [to postpone] came in light and in context of the tensions that we’re seeing right now, and they’re pretty escalated,” Kirby said. “Temperature’s pretty high, and the president believed, and the national security team believed, that a strong, confident, capable nuclear power can afford to wait a couple of weeks for a test to make it clear — not just in word but in deed — how serious we are when we say we have no interest in escalating the tensions.”
The Wall Street Journal was first to report the delay.
China earlier announced that military exercises by its Navy, Air Force and other departments were underway in six zones surrounding Taiwan, which Beijing claims as its own territory and has threatened to annex by force if necessary.
On Thursday, the U.S. Navy said its aircraft carrier Ronald Reagan was operating in the Philippine Sea, east of Taiwan, as part of “normal scheduled operations.”
Secretary of State Antony Blinken addressed the drills Thursday, saying: “I hope very much that Beijing will not manufacture a crisis or seek a pretext to increase its aggressive military activity. We countries around the world believe that escalation serves no one and could have unintended consequences that serve no one’s interests.”
Kirby said at the White House that the United States does not want a crisis, but that it will not be deterred from operating in the Indo-Pacific region. Air and maritime transit through the Taiwan Strait will continue over the next few weeks, he added, and the U.S. will take steps to show its commitment to the security of regional allies, including Japan.
The delay triggered Capitol Hill pushback from Republicans. House Armed Services Committee ranking member Mike Rogers, R-Ala., framed the delays as concessions to Russia and China.
“These weak-kneed pearl-clutching attempts at appeasement hurt our readiness and will only invite further aggression by our adversaries,” Rogers said in a statement.
Tom Karako, director of the Missile Defense Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank, told Defense News the test’s delay is the wrong move.
“I hope at some point we figure out neither the Russians nor the Chinese are really going to be all that impressed by this kind of thing,” Karako said. “They probably respect strength more than weakness, action more than inaction.”
U.S. Air Force crews with the 576th Flight Test Squadron test four Minuteman III rockets per year from Vandenberg, according to the Pentagon. The tests are planned years in advance and publicized to avoid miscalculations.
Air Force Global Strike Command declined to comment and referred comment to the Pentagon.
In March, U.S. Strategic Command chief Adm. Charles Richard told lawmakers the U.S. had not altered the posture of its nuclear forces in response to Russia’s decision to put its forces on higher alert.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Joe Gould was the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He had previously served as Congress reporter.
Stephen Losey is the air warfare reporter for Defense News. He previously covered leadership and personnel issues at Air Force Times, and the Pentagon, special operations and air warfare at Military.com. He has traveled to the Middle East to cover U.S. Air Force operations.