The era of the nuke is not over. America keeps hundreds of nuclear-tipped missiles on constant alert, promising immediate retaliation if anyone else uses them first. But to be a deterrent, missiles fielded in the 1970s must be trusted to deliver. The only way to prove it: fire one across the globe.
The burgers and hot dogs are sizzling outside the missile silo. A dozen airmen in green one-piece flightsuits gather around a portable barbecue, slathering ketchup and mustard on rolls and relaxing in the balmy weather as they wait for the meat to cook.
Behind the airmen is an idyllic, almost stereotypical California backdrop – swells of sage-covered hills, an occasional palm tree, and a stretch of beach, white with foam from the Pacific surf. Gulls wheel overhead and endangered snowy plovers nest in the sand. But signs on the beach belie the tranquil scenery: “Fatal shark attacks: swim/surf at your own risk” and “Monitored by electronic surveillance”.
Personnel here at Vandenberg Air Force Base, 114 kilometres north of Santa Barbara, California, call these airmen the key turners from up north. Sincere and amiable 20-somethings, they usually spend their workdays in launch capsules 20 metres underground. They have come here to California from remote air bases in Montana and North Dakota to launch a Minuteman III Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM). The United States uses the Minuteman III for one thing – to drop nuclear warheads anywhere in the world in half an hour.
About 200 metres away from the relaxed cookout, Air Force maintenance officers and civilian contractors are loading the 20-metre missile into a silo named Launch Facility-10 (LF-10). The civilian range-safety operations crews at Vandenberg are wary – the missile packs enough explosives and rocket fuel to kill everyone present. So they shoo the missileers away from LF-10 while the crews lower the ICBM from inside a tractor-trailer into the silo. It’s a process key turners don’t normally see.
One of the airmen outside the fence, 1st Lt Lucas Rider, then of the 90th Operations Support Squadron – an Eagle Scout and a former intern on Oprah’s Search for the Next TV Star – has been in the Air Force for three years. Like most of his peers, he had never even heard of ICBMs until his USAF recruiter told him where he was being sent for officer training. “I said missile ops? What in the world is that?” he recalls. “I literally knew nothing about this career field.” Now Rider controls the most powerful weapons ever created.
In less than 30 days he’ll get the best reward the Air Force can bestow on a young missileer: he’ll shoot a missile payload into space. “Knowing that I’m going to key-turn on it in less than a month is indescribable,” he says, eyeing the silo. Three times a year the Air Force plucks missiles from the ICBM fields, chooses crews to launch them, and sends them to California for a test flight. (Armed nuclear warheads are tested only in supercomputer simulations.) The test flights are called Glory Trips, and this is the 209th such test flight since 1970, so it’s called GT-209.
Some call a Glory Trip the Super Bowl of a missileer’s career. It’s the opportunity of a lifetime, and one that’s hard-earned. These young airmen incessantly train to perform a task, having no real expectation that they’ll ever do it. Being ready to launch doomsday weapons, it turns out, can be an inglorious job.
Forgotten but not gone
More than 20 years after the end of the Cold War, the brute reality of mutually assured destruction persists. It lingers because, in an uncertain world, it works as a deterrent. The end of the Cold War did not eliminate the threat of nuclear weapons. In fact, the threat has expanded to new nations that wield longer range missiles. “Rightly or wrongly,” BBC writer Kevin Connolly summed up in late 2013, “the possession of nuclear weapons edges you closer to a seat at the high table of world politics.”
Some players who already have seats at the table have long-standing geopolitical tensions with the United States. Russia still maintains 1 800 nuclear weapons, and launch-tested four ICBMs in a single day in October 2013. Experts estimate that China’s growing arsenal includes as that number does not count Chinese submarine launched ICBMs that some experts think will be operational this year. North Korea has long-range missiles, and its underground detonation in February 2013 may be a sign that it’s developing a small nuke suitable for a missile warhead.
The Pentagon maintains that the promise of nuclear counterattack is the only certain way to prevent the use of nuclear weapons against America and its allies.
Professionals in the ICBM world talk a lot about deterrence. Major-General Michael Carey, then commander of the 20th Air Force, which controls land-based nuclear missiles, voiced the institutional view when he visited the offices of Popular Mechanics in July 2013. “We keep a lid on World War III,” Carey said.
America deploys 2 130 operational warheads, according to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. The Air Force alone keeps 450 nuclear-tipped ICBMs on constant alert at Air Force bases in remote corners of the nation. Every 24 hours, two airmen descend by lift into a capsule, where they monitor the health of 10 nuclear-tipped Minutemen III missiles in silos up to 15 kilometres away from the capsule. Receiving an “emergency action message” means they initiate a launch (see “Down in the Hole,” April 2011).
While other nations are fielding new launch vehicles, the US is making sure that its arsenal of old but upgraded missiles still works. The Minuteman III missiles – originally scheduled for just 10 years of service – will be 70 years old when they are replaced in 2030. They need real-world testing.
That’s where the Glory Trips come in. The missiles, fired from Vandenberg, drop warheads 7 700 kilometres away into the Pacific off a tiny atoll called Kwajalein. Instead of nukes, the warheads (re-entry vehicles) carry telemetry packages.
During GT-209, analysts from the USA’s Air Force and Department of Energy will review the missile’s guidance, especially the pendulous integrating gyroscopic accelerometers. Evaluators pay particular attention to the engines, which were replaced during a R77 billion overhaul that concluded in 2010. Data will evaluate how they’re ageing.
The US Department of Energy monitors of the re-entry vehicles. The Missile Defence Agency gathers data to learn how to thwart other nations’ missiles and warheads. An Air Force “reliability scoring panel” judges the warheads’ accuracy.
Glory Trips have an added benefit of boosting the morale of the best missile crews and maintainers. GT-209 is well-timed – America’s ICBM professionals had a rough year in 2013. Two senior leaders, including General Carey, three months after his visit to PM, were relieved of duty for personal misconduct, and some missile wings failed readiness reviews.
(This year looks even worse: as this story was going to press, the Air Force announced 34 ICBM launch control officers from Malmstrom Air Force Base had been accused of cheating on monthly proficiency tests.)
Two independent reports found that the morale in the missile fields is sagging. One of them, an internal Air Force study by Rand obtained by the Associated Press, found that the personnel it polled suffer from “feelings of hopelessness, tiredness and a sense of being trapped”.
The drawbacks of the career are obvious, and all the key turners can recite them: living on remote air bases; enduring a personnel reliability programme (airmen who work with nukes must report physical and mental strains to officials: domestic fights, cough-medicine intake, everything) that scrutinises personal lives; undergoing ceaseless drills and tests; and dealing with a media echo chamber that reports even small infractions – such as leaving a blast door open inside a launch capsule – as if they were national security crises. Some younger airmen, however, see an upside to the media coverage. “We are the forces they are talking about,” says 1st Lt William Swinton, a key turner with the 319th Squadron. “It’s important.”
The airmen at Vandenberg who are conducting GT-209 do not seem demoralised. They are enjoying a rare moment to practise the trade that consumes their lives. For all the effort they expend on tending ICBMs, key turners spend little time in close proximity to the missiles. “I already knew that we hold ourselves to extremely high standards,” Fay says. “The Glory Trip not only reinforces that, it makes me realise how much truly goes into these weapons.”
ICBM tests in the continental United States typically occur during the early morning hours. That way, they disrupt as few civilian lives as possible. Aircraft have to be diverted; marine traffic along the California coast shuts down. The State Department alerts foreign governments – especially nuke-bearing nations – to the imminent launch. It’s as if a large part of the world pauses.
It’s a few minutes before launch. Rider and 1st Lt Nathan Larson insert the launch keys and fix their eyes on the digital clock, hands on the switches. Rider’s body starts to feel the effects of an adrenaline surge: “Would you believe it if I said that I was nervous and kind of shaky the last few minutes before launch?”
Just after 3:00 am, Rider and Larson turn the switches and begin what is known as terminal countdown (thirty seconds before a launch, the Minuteman III enters its terminal countdown. Umbilicals on the silo walls disconnect from the missile, and the weapon’s on-board computer takes over the launch). Inside the silo at LF-10, four ballistic gas generators come violently to life, blowing the 110-ton silo door open. At 3:01 am, the key turners feel the launch control centre rumble; the ICBM roars to life a few hundred metres away. A flickering lick of orange flame illuminates billowing smoke as the missile leaps from its hole.
An ICBM launch has the same flight profile as a basketball jump shot. There is an early, high-energy release, followed by an extended arc-shaped cruise that crests at an altitude of 1 125 kilometres – 700 kilometres higher than the International Space Station’s orbit – and a final plunge.
After 60 seconds, the Minuteman III is already at an altitude of 30 000 metres. Each of the three stages separates in 1-minute intervals. The missile’s fairing falls away, powered by its own thrusters, exposing the 2-metre warheads. The Minuteman III launches a spacecraft, called a bus, powered by a liquid-fuel-propulsion-system rocket engine. This PSRE (“PIZZ–re”) fires to aim the mock W87 warheads. The bus releases each warhead individually; the PSRE fires slightly to adjust the trajectory of each one. This all happens about 180 seconds into the flight, 300 kilometres from LF-10. The warheads travel the remaining 7 400 kilometres without any power.
About half an hour later – the exact time is classified – bright pinpricks appear over Kwajalein, 3 800 kilometres south west of Honolulu. Each warhead is trailing a glowing shroud of superheated ionised air. Radar domes and dishes on the 14-square-kilometre Pacific atoll skin track (skin tracking is what professionals call the direct surveillance of an object by radar) the warheads’ progress. When the warheads get close, batteries of high-definition cameras capture their flights for analysis. Ten antennas on Kwajalein gather telemetry data.
The three dummy warheads, shooting stars trailing in one after another, splash down on target. The re-entry vehicles settle to the bottom of the ocean, too deep for recovery.
The next day Rider, Fay, Larson and the rest of the GT-209 crew reluctantly take off the velcro GT-209 mission patches from the left arms of their uniforms. They will be able to enjoy a few more days in California before heading north, where a cold autumn is already descending.
Those in the ICBM business will continue to obsess over the missiles so the rest of us can forget they exist, happily oblivious that Armageddon is still – and probably always will be – only half an hour away.
* Key turners: Airmen who launch nuclear missiles.
* Personnel Reliability Programme (PRP): Airmen who work with nukes must report physical and mental strains to officials – domestic flights, cough medicine intake, everything. A 2013 independent report says a PRP is needed, but is bureaucratic and intrusive.
* Terminal countdown: Thirty seconds before a launch, the ICBM enters its terminal countdown. Umbilicals on the silo walls disconnect from the missile, and the weapon’s on-board computer takes over the launch.
* Skin track: Skin tracking is what professionals call direct surveillance of an object by radar.