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Long-Range Missiles Haven’t Deterred Anything – and Haven’t Vanished


Barb Katt and I are the only two people to have ever visited all 1,000 Minuteman II and III missile sites in the United States, as well as their 100 launch control centers. Working for Nukewatch in 1988, we spent four months and drove over 30,000 miles pinpointing the exact locations of the land-based nuclear weapons for the book Nuclear Heartland -- the only complete atlas of the government’s ground-launched intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) arsenal. Nuclear Heartland remains the only publicly available guide to the 450 nuclear missiles that still militarize the Great Plains. Main stream reporters have claimed that the chain-link fences around the missiles’ concrete launch pads are “designed to foil Soviet saboteurs,” which makes me laugh. The two of us walked through or climbed over silo enclosures many times to photograph the sites. The 450 Minuteman IIIs that remain on alert and ready-to-launch in Montana, North Dakota, and the corner of Colorado, Wyoming, Nebraska, are still as unguarded and isolated as ever. Anyone may sabotage them anytime with some concrete or glue.
During our research we found many silos undergoing repair and completely vulnerable. We found one -- silo S-4 in Wyoming, dubbed “Misogynist missile” by Nukewatch volunteers -- wide open, with its massive underground launch tube empty, and not a soul in sight. The gaping multi-million-dollar hole seemed to ask: “What Soviet threat?” This was 1988, when the notion that the missiles deterred the former USSR was never questioned. Still, the US Air Force itself proved otherwise during our investigation.
We learned at the time that the 1,500-mile-long network of buried cables linking the ICBMs to their launch control centers was being repaired. The subject of compensation for the damage to be done to farmers’ fields was openly discussed at a public hearing we attended. The Air Force gave total strangers precise details of the locations and timetables of its planned rehab work. The missile system could easily have been sabotaged then, using the Air Force’s own publicized information.
If the missile system was built to deter the now vanished Soviet Union, another question is begged: What purpose is served by the 450 Minuteman III missiles deployed today? They obviously don’t deter al Qaeda, ISIS, Putin, insurgents under US occupation, or the Afghans and Iraqis trained by US commandos who turn their guns on their trainers.
The Minuteman II destruction program that eliminated 550 weapons in Missouri, South Dakota and Grand Forks, North Dakota, was halted for a time because of concerns over water contamination from PCBs -- present in large amounts in the underground ICBM chambers. This pollution threat was successfully dismissed by Air Force lawyers, and the “imploding” of those silos was renewed.
Recent reports about the missiles often describe their launch mechanisms as having been “designed to prevent accidental triggering.” This boastfulness obscures the history of missile launch accidents and near disasters -- detailed at length by Eric Schlosser in his 2014 book Command and Control -- including a May 23, 2008 fire in a Wyoming silo that caused over $1 million in damages; the crash of a loaded Minuteman III missile trailer that skidded off an icy road northwest of Grand Forks March 22, 1990; or the Jan. 10, 1984 incident when the Air Force resorted to parking an armored truck atop a Wyoming silo because officials thought an out-of-control launch sequence was “in progress.”
Such horrifying close calls must be put out-of-mind by the top brass when it’s time for celebration. After 149 of South Dakota’s silos were demolished (one was turned into a museum), a “missile farewell party” was arranged. The authorities had a “set of gold-plated missile launch keys” made for each of the 1,000 guests. This has to be called grotesque trivialization, and morbid denial of the fact that the real keys used in today’s 45 launch control centers can each ignite a holocaust. But psychic numbing is common in missile duty. One launch center door sports a hand painted depiction of a missile fired from a pizza box, with the inscription, “World-wide delivery in 30 minutes or the next one’s free.”
Cold War memorials and Minuteman missile “museums” are popping up all over -- as if ICBMs were a thing of the past. In North Dakota there’s one named after Ronald Reagan, but a better use of hard-earned tax money comes to mind.
There are over 20,000 separate sites in the US poisoned with radioactivity left from building the nuclear arsenal. Each one is a museum in itself, more permanent, more educational, and more in need of grave vigilance than a retired delivery system for mass destruction.