Their launch infrastructure is ageing, and the New St art treaty cuts their numbers, but America’s Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) remain the cornerstone of Western nuclear deterrence. And every day, airmen descend into hardened bunkers to await the unthinkable. By Joe Pappalardo
The ranch house sitting 30 metres off a two-lane, pothole-riddled road southeast of Great Falls, Montana, is not much to look at. It’s a simple one-storey structure, surrounded by a chain-link fence, with a detached garage and a basketball hoop in the driveway.
But a closer examination reveals curious details: a red-and-white microwave tower looming over the buildings, a helicopter landing pad in the front yard and a conical ultrahigh-frequency antenna growing from the lawn like a white mushroom. This place could be a university agricultural research outpost or a state weather station – except for the red sign on the fence warning that anyone trying to sneak on to the property could be met with lethal force.
A security officer inside the house vets everyone who enters. Any deviation from what is expected – even a misspelled name or a missing middle initial – can bring guards with M4 rifles and handcuffs. The thick front gate opens vertically to avoid being blocked by snow in winter.
Inside, the house becomes a military barracks. A central room is shared living space – television, sofas, love seat and a handful of long tables for group meals. A hallway branches into rooms with bunk beds. Government posters on the walls warn of loose lips and lurking spies.
A bulletproof door in the living area leads to a small side room. There, the flight security controller (FSC), a non-commissioned officer responsible for safeguarding this facility, sits next to a 3 metre-tall locker housing the M4s and M9 handguns. There’s yet another door in this security room, one that the FSC and guards never enter except in the case of an extreme emergency. It leads to an elevator that has one stop, six storeys below ground.
The FSC speaks softly on the phone, exchanging codes required to make the elevator appear. It won’t come up until riders clear and close the security-room door. The elevator’s steel door is hand-operated, unrolling like a storefront security shutter to reveal a small box with metal walls.
It takes less than a minute to make the 20-metre descent, but it’s a different world down in the hole. The elevator opens to the smooth curve of a black, pill-shaped capsule, interrupted by the thick stubs of pneumatic shock absorbers that can protect occupants from shock waves caused by the nearby blast of a nuclear warhead.
A series of clangs, reminiscent of the sound of a castle’s portcullis rising, echo outside the capsule, and moments later a massive hatch slowly swings open, 26-year-old Air Force Captain Chad Dieterle clinging to its metal handle. The word INDIA is stencilled on the blast door’s 1,4 metre-thick inner edge. Dieterle is halfway through his 24-hour shift as commander of Launch Control Centre India, built here at Malmstrom Air Force Base when the airman’s parents were teens.
LCC India is hard-wired to 50 surrounding silos, each about 11 kilometres away. Each silo houses an 18-metre Minuteman III Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM). The US Air Force won’t con. rm the number of warheads in the missiles, but each can hold a maximum of three; every warhead can immolate 170 square kilometres within minutes of detonation.
Half an hour after receiving the order, Dieterle and his deputy can deliver these weapons anywhere on the globe. Their quiet, subterranean presence makes this banal Montana ranch house one of the most strategically important locations on the planet.
America’s nuclear arsenal – about 2 200 strategic warheads carried by 94 bombers, 14 submarines and 450 ICBMs – remains a cornerstone of the country’s national security. Despite President Barack Obama’s oft-repeated desire to work toward a world without nuclear weapons, his administration’s Nuclear Posture Review states that “as long as nuclear weapons exist, the US will maintain safe, secure and effective nuclear forces”.
Since the end of the Cold War, the number of nukes worldwide has plummeted, but more nations, including potential foes such as China, Iran and North Korea, have nuclear weapons programmes and field long-distance missiles. So America’s nuclear stockpile – and the aircraft, submarines and missiles that deliver them – will remain on alert despite any good intentions or lofty rhetoric.
Although the ICBM leg of the US nuclear triad is 50 years old, it remains the focus of intense debate in Washington, DC, and Moscow. Last year the Obama administration signed the New START treaty with Russia, which would reduce the two countries’ nuclear arsenals to fewer than 1 550 strategic warheads within seven years. America’s 450 deployed ICBMs would shrink by 30. To win support from hawkish, sceptical senators, the White House proposed to increase nuclear weapon modernisation spending by R600 billion over the next 10 years. (Future US governments will have to sign off on those funds.) “I will vote to ratify New START . . . because the president has committed (to) a plan to make sure that those weapons work,” Republican Senator Lamar Alexander said.
Why are ICBMs, icons of the Cold War, still a centrepiece of 21st-century defence, politics and diplomacy?
Of the three kinds of delivery systems (aircraft, submarines and missiles), ICBMs promise the fastest response to nuclear attack – or can launch quickly enough to prevent one. Submarines are virtually undetectable and nuclear bombers can strike with precision, but only intercontinental missiles are always ready to deliver a nuke, undeterred, anywhere in the world within minutes. (Submarines have long-range ballistic missiles, but land-based communication is more reliable.) The American ICBM umbrella spans the globe, lowering the number of nukes worldwide by taking the burden of deterrence from allied governments.
“As airmen, we strongly believe that it is important for the United States to be able to hold at risk any adversary’s target, regardless of where it is, regardless of how heavily defended it is, regardless of how deeply buried it may be, regardless of how widely dispersed it may be,” says Lieutenant- General Frank Klotz, who stepped down in January as the head of Global Strike Command, which has stewardship over the USA’s nuclear bombers and missiles.
ICBM . elds, unnerving though their purpose may be, are engineering triumphs. The proof is their age – the Air Force installed these launch systems in the early 1960s, and they have stayed at readiness levels exceeding 99 per cent ever since. Even more astounding, the Pentagon built the ICBM fields to last only a few decades. When the Minuteman III retires, the silos and launch facilities at Malmstrom will have been buried for 70 years.
The Air Force monitors the world’s most powerful weapons with equipment made during the Space Age, not the Information Age. But these old launch systems are holding up better than most people think. “To build something that has withstood the test of time and continues to be a marvellous engineering system is just nothing short of genius,” Klotz says. “The 1960s designers really did think this through very carefully and designed in a lot of redundancy.”
It takes thousands of dedicated airmen at three Air Force bases – Malmstrom, FE Warren in Wyoming and Minot in North Dakota – to keep the ICBM silos operational. Since 2000, the Pentagon has spent more than R50 billion on ICBM renovations. None of the money went to launch facilities; the Air Force instead amped up base security, improved command and control cryptography, updated missile guidance systems and replaced rocket fuel. (The same warheads, deployed in 1979, sit in the ICBMs’ noses, but this February the National Nuclear Security Administration began studying a replacement, to be produced in 2021.) Klotz says the Air Force has upgraded “every inch” of the Minuteman III missile since replacing its predecessors in the 1970s.
This work was intended to keep the Minuteman IIIs functional until a scheduled retirement in 2020, but last year the Obama administration extended their service lives by another decade. In response, the Air Force is crafting a schedule for improving the missile fields, using some of the billions recently promised by the White House. “As expensive as this sounds, you are building an insurance policy for something where failure is unimaginable,” says Anthony Cordesman, an analyst with the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington, DC, think tank. “The cost of upgrading a distributed ICBM field is fairly minor.”
He compares the cost of the Minuteman IIIs with the price of building and maintaining new Ohio-class submarines. The US Navy intends to buy 12 new nuclear-armed submarines in 2019. According to the Congressional Budget Office, the sub replacement programme alone will run to R700 billion, with another R100 billion in research and development. Compared with subs, ICBMs promise Armageddon on a budget.
Within LCC India, beneath the ranch house, Dieterle is working a hand pump that seals the capsule. It’s hard to put aside the feeling of being entombed when the reedy sound of air seeping from the edge of the blast door stops.
Very little has changed inside the LCC since the Kennedy administration: digital screens have replaced paper teletype machines, and servers in the ranch house above provide the capsule crews Internet access as well as Direct TV for slow shifts. But the LCC’s oversized electronics, mounted on wide metal racks and studded with raised lights and illuminated buttons, look like something from the set of the original Star Trek TV show. Some equipment is painfully old: Dieterle grins sheepishly as he pulls a 23-cm ¤ oppy disc from a console, part of the antiquated but functional Strategic Automated Command and Control System.
Unlike missiles and surface-level facilities, the underground silos and LCCs are hard to upgrade and impossible to replace. And they take a beating. Corrosion and rust are insidious foes, and soil shifts can break subterranean communication lines.
Launch Control Centre India is one of 15 LCCs controlled by the missileers of Malmstrom Air Force Base. “Take a 40-year-old home,” says Colonel Jeff Frankhouser, Malmstrom’s maintenance group commander. “Now bury it in the ground. Then figure out what your challenges are. We’ll have those.”
The base is responsible for 150 nuclear ICBMs scattered across a staggering 37 000 square kilometres of Montana plains, hills and mountains. e wide distribution made it impossible for the Soviet Union to knock out every silo and LCC with a massive nuclear barrage, which guaranteed that the US could retaliate.
The elegant doctrine of deterrence bred some necessarily unwieldy infrastructure. For example, hundreds of thousands of kilometres of subterranean communication lines connect LCCs and silos. Each fist-thick cable contains hundreds of insulated copper lines surrounded by a pressurised sheath; the launch and base crews can detect any break or tampering by a drop in pressure.
Personnel at Malmstrom struggle constantly against this dispersed layout. Every day, hundreds of people – 30 launch control teams, 135 maintenance workers and 206 security team members – deploy to tend the missile field. Some LCCs, staffed by a proudly suffering squadron called the Farsiders, are a 3-hour drive from the base. SUVs, big rigs and massive missile erectors daily travel more than 40 000 kilometres of roads, more than 6 000 kilometres of which are gravel.
The motto here is “perfection is the standard”, and an army of evaluators hold personnel to this in. exible creed. Any mistakes can lead to an immediate removal from duty until the training sta. retests the violator. This level of scrutiny extends to the entire base – officers reprimand cooks for keeping salad dressing beyond its expiry date or failing to clean the hoods over the stoves. Food poisoning can shut down a missile alert facility as neatly as a Russian Spetsnaz special ops team. Being careful to the point of paranoia is a baseline philosophy at Malmstrom. “It might seem like overkill,” says Colonel Mohammed Khan, who served as the 341st Missile Wing’s operations commander at Malmstrom until late 2010. “But hey, these are nukes.”
Any problem at the silos is a national security event. At 1:40 am on 23 October 2010, the two-man crew of an LCC at FE Warren Air Force Base was shocked to see the abbreviation LFDN, or Launch Facility Down, appearing on the screens that show each silo’s status – they had lost contact with the 10 ICBMs under their direct control. Sporadic communication problems also spread to the squadron’s four other LCCs.
Warren’s airmen and technicians took the afficted LCC offline, clearing up the communications interference and enabling the rest of the squadron to stay operational. It took days to find the cause: a loose computer data card in the LCC’s weapons system processor. The launch centre was calling the silos, but it couldn’t hear the replies.
The incident never hampered the country’s overall readiness, since the work of one LCC is easily taken up by others at the base. When a communications problem at an ICBM base is serious, an E-6B aircraft takes off from Offutt Air Force Base in Omaha, Nebraska, to serve as an airborne launch control center. That didn’t happen on 23 October, according to Air Force officials.
Nevertheless, the outage became a rallying cry in the US Congress to revitalise Minuteman III facilities. “Modernisation of our nuclear force is a necessity. The incident at Warren proves this beyond a doubt,” Senator John Barrasso wrote in an op-ed piece. That conclusion ignores the fact that the loss of communications was caused by an upgrade – base maintainers had replaced the data card the day before, but they did not properly seat it, and equipment vibrations shook the card loose.
Modernisation has downsides. Upgrades require invasive procedures at the carefully kept facilities; mixing new and old technology can lead to unforeseen problems; and Global Strike Command is struggling with a personnel shortage. "I think we absolutely have to do modernisation," says Klotz, who is retiring in March. "But maintaining an ageing system, coupled with the efforts to modernise it, places a pretty high workload on all of our bases." Besides, sometimes the old systems are just built tougher. "Systems that are older tend to be more robust and less vulnerable," Klotz says. "There is a certain ruggedness in the design that we might not have if it were relying upon the most up-to-date technology."
Nuclear missile launches are not activated by the turn of a key. If the call comes to India's LCC, Dieterle and his deputy commander, Captain Ted Givler, will match the codes from the White House that enable the silos to fire with ones kept in the LCC's metal safes. The pair of missileers would each grip two triangular switches, eyes fixed to a red digital clock ticking away between the consoles. At the predetermined time, they'd turn the triangle from SET to LAUNCH. A second pair of airmen in another LCC would simultaneously turn their switches, and the ICBMs would be free.
Each ICBM tube is good for only one shot – the electronics, ladders, communications wiring, security sensors and sump pump would burn or melt. The Minuteman III would push an obscenely perfect smoke ring shaped like the silo's entrance over the Montana landscape. Billowing exhaust, the missile would reach space in minutes; in a half an hour the warheads would be falling on their targets.
The power of the weapons under the missileers' command and the pressure to be perfect are magnified by the LCC'fs intense, isolated surroundings. A simple mattress ringed by a blackout curtain is mounted at the far end of the capsule. "This is never a good place to wake up," Dieterle says.
It's time to go up the elevator, back to what the missileers call the real world. With a slow pull, Dieterle tugs the handle of the black blast door until the thick slab starts to turn. He offers one last, slight smile and the door shuts with a thud. Dieterle, or someone like him, is down there now, waiting.
Malmstrom missile field
Malmstrom Air Force Base is responsible for 15 nuclear launch facilities and 150 silos spread over 37 000 square kilometres. The US Air Force buried the launch control rooms to thwart a Soviet nuclear onslaught and distributed underground silos so inbound warheads would have to hit each site directly, at ground level, to prevent US retaliation.
Missile alert facility
A missile alert facility houses the guards who protect the nearby silos and the Launch Control Centre 20 metres below ground. The MAF is staffed 24 hours, every day.
1. Elevator shaft: Only missileers – and their meals, prepared above – take the trip down.
2. Blast door: This 1,4-metre-thick door can withstand a nearby nuclear blast. It’s hand-operated.
3. Launch control centre: Two airmen pull 24-hour shifts here, waiting for the Emergency Action Message that would start an ICBM launch.
4. Escape tunnel: If the elevator is destroyed in a nuclear exchange, the missileers can dig out via this sand-filled tube.