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Cold War-era silos still ready for battle - Missile sites on Plains staffed 24 hours a day

Grasshopper27

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Sep 11, 2002
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The Denver Post / by Andy Cross
Monday, January 13, 2003 - NEW RAYMER - Guests who make their way up the driveway to an oversized yellow house here on the Colorado prairie are not greeted with country hospitality or a cup of tea.

Lt. Col. Tim Adam stands by a chain-link fence surrounding a missle silo near New Raymer.
Instead, two men in camouflage green, one carrying two M-16 rifles and the other toting a grenade launcher, march to the fence.

In the "basement" of this yellow ranch house, 65 feet below ground in a steel capsule, two-person crews from Wyoming's F.E. Warren Air Force Base monitor and control intercontinental ballistic missiles, the most powerful weapons in the world.

This "house" is actually a Missile Alert Facility, one of 20 on the plains of Colorado, Wyoming and Nebraska. From these facilities, any of 150 Minuteman III missiles can be launched. The nuclear warheads can travel 6,000 miles in any direction at speeds of up to 15,000 mph. Each missile is 15 times more powerful than the Hiroshima atomic bomb, which killed a total of 200,000 people.

The nuclear arsenal buried in Colorado's backyard is a holdover from the Cold War. Its purpose is the same now as then: deterrence.

"There's a lot of nations out there that have weapons of mass destruction," said Capt. Stacy Vaughn, spokeswoman for Warren AFB. "We use these as a deterrent. If nations know we have these, hopefully they won't use theirs against ours. And there's probably some nations that have capability that we don't know they have."

During the Cold War, the missiles were aimed at Russia. These days, the Air Force won't say where they are pointed. Civilian analyst Bruce Blair, who heads the Center for Defense Information in Washington, D.C., said the target remains the same for now, but military planners are looking at new missions for the weapons.

The military is unlikely to use the missiles in Iraq, Blair said. For starters, nuclear fallout could poison neighboring friendly nations or even American troops. Secondly, Blair said he doubts the U.S. would launch weapons from the Western states to Iraq because the flight path would put Americans in harm's way if there were a mishap.

Some critics say the United States has too many Minuteman missiles, given the diminished threat from Russia.

"This is a legacy of the Cold War. ... Both the U.S. and Russia have retained and continue to retain, vastly more nuclear weapons than either country needs," said Thomas B. Cochran, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council's nuclear-tracking program.

Minuteman IIIs have been on around-the-clock alert in Colorado, Wyoming and Nebraska since they were put in underground silos in 1963. None has ever been launched. Wyoming also has 50 Peacekeeper missiles, a more lethal variety of missiles that each carry 10 independently targeted nuclear warheads. Warren AFB recently began spending $20.9 million annually to deactivate the Peacekeepers to comply with a May arms reduction treaty between the U.S. and Russia.

Every day, between 75 and 80 "missileers" - the men and women trained to launch the weapons - watch over the 49 Minuteman silos in Colorado. The young lieutenants and captains have taken a 21-week course at Vandenburg Air Force Base in California. Exercises and simulated-launch scenarios round out their training.

The missileers sign agreements acknowledging the gravity of their mission: They might be asked to launch a nuclear warhead. The workers have to be in top mental and physical shape. They can only take drugs prescribed by Air Force doctors. Even things such as Vitamin C and Slim Fast require prior approval. Reliability is paramount, said Lt. Col. Tim Adam, commander of the 321st Missile Squadron.

Each missile silo is topped with 5 feet of concrete weighing 110 tons. The silos are connected to the Missile Alert Facility through a system of hardened cables. Chain- link fences enclose the silos, which are monitored with security sensors that can be triggered by wind, tumbleweeds, coyotes or intruders. When that happens, alarms sound in the Missile Alert Facilities. Within minutes, roving security forces can respond.

In October, when Catholic nuns sat on top of a silo near New Raymer to protest the nuclear weapons, security police rolled over the chain-link fence in an armored vehicle, not stopping to open the gate. Within seconds, the nuns had high-powered machine guns pointed at their heads.

Each morning, dozens of missileers meet at Warren. Commanders talk to the crews about safety, road conditions, weather forecasts and maintenance.

In the meetings, every missileer learns "duress words."

"Let's say someone takes them down at gunpoint. They can pass these duress words so people know they're in conflict," said Col. Frank Gallegos, who commands the missile operation.

The meeting ends with Gallegos saying: "Have a good alert."

The young captains and lieutenants load up in blue pickup trucks and head for the various Missile Alert Facilities, which are all more than 80 miles from Warren. On bad-weather days, the crews are flown to the sites in helicopters.

When they arrive, they show identification at the facility gate, again before entering the building and a third time inside.

"We're paranoid," Adam said. "We consider anyone and everyone a threat."

Above the bunker, a chef and facility manager work in the "house," which is equipped with bunks, a kitchen, television and exercise room.

Launch crews take an elevator 65 feet underground to the steel capsule. Before the 8-ton blast doors are opened, crews swipe their ID cards yet again through an electronic system.

Beyond the blast door is a cramped office the size of a boxcar. It rests on giant shock absorbers to protect from nuclear attack or earthquake. The room has two computers that show the status of the 10 missiles under the team's watch and communications from higher commands.

If ordered to launch, crew members would verify the information a number of different ways. Both missileers in the capsule would punch in the combination to the locks that secure the keys. A code would be verified again. (No one person ever has the combination to both locks.) Then, the keys would fit into the console and the switch could be turned to "launch."

The very same scenario has to occur at a separate Missile Alert Facility. Then, the two keys are turned at the same time.

The duty can be nerve-wracking, especially the first few 24-hour shifts, said Lt. Jeremy Johnson, 24, of Portland, Ore.

"My first shift, I sat up all night staring at the computer screen. 'Please don't let anything go wrong. Please don't let anything go wrong.' It's one of those exciting terror feelings," Johnson said. "It's a detail-oriented job. You have to pay attention to the little things."

Johnson said people are impressed when he tells them what he does.

"You get a lot of sense of awe from people because of the term 'nuclear.' That responsibility combined with the day-to-day events on TV, it's very humbling."

Most of the silos are located on private land leased by the government. The farmers and ranchers who live nearby say the missiles are mostly out of sight, out of mind.

"I've never had a fearful or uneasy feeling about them," said Janet Fogale, who owns a Logan County cattle ranch with her husband. "If a missile ever went off, it would be at its target before we even knew it had been launched."

Fogale said Air Force personnel inform neighbors when they do routine maintenance at the silos.

"We've had them for so long, it's just a part of us," said Lynn Rogers, who has two silos on the ranch she and her husband manage in Logan County. "You feel good knowing someone's always taking care of them."

But Dale Schmeeckle of New Raymer, population 120, said he's had a handful of hostile interactions with the Air Force over the silo on his land. He said the site and its maintenance have at times obstructed dryland wheat farming on a portion of his property.

The 5-acre site off of Colorado 14 has been the focus of protests by peace activists, including the nuns. The missile at the silo site called "November 8" is a mile from his home.

"They said if they ever had to use it, it would blow the windows out of my house and I don't like that idea," Schmeeckle said. "I'm not comfortable with it at all, but what can I do about it? I wish we could stay out of war."
 

SuperTool

Lifer
Jan 25, 2000
14,000
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Why were MIRV warheads outlawed? Seems like a good way to save some money on missiles and silos.
 
May 10, 2001
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They said if they ever had to use it, it would blow the windows out of my house and I don't like that idea
Wow... if thermo-nuclear war is necessary, and this guy thinks that his windows will be a problem....

We played a lot of money for those bombs, we better be ready to kill those that might kill use... lest we have no deterrent.

Of course it?d be better if everyone in the world got rid of there weapons of mass- destruction, <sarcasm> but we?re the good guys, so we need to keep the bad-guys afraid of us! </sarcasm>
 

PsychoAndy

Lifer
Dec 31, 2000
10,735
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Originally posted by: Grasshopper27
"They said if they ever had to use it, it would blow the windows out of my house and I don't like that idea," Schmeeckle said. "I'm not comfortable with it at all, but what can I do about it? I wish we could stay out of war."
A missile launch blowing out his windows should be the least of his concerns.
 

Grasshopper27

Banned
Sep 11, 2002
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Originally posted by: SuperTool
Why were MIRV warheads outlawed? Seems like a good way to save some money on missiles and silos.
Treaties...

We still have MIRVs on some missiles, but not on others.

Hardly matters, more a "feel good" thing than anything else.

150 nuclear warheads on 150 missiles, or 1,500 nuclear warheads on 150 missiles, will it *really* matter if they have to be used?

Hopper
 

PsychoAndy

Lifer
Dec 31, 2000
10,735
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Originally posted by: SuperTool
Why were MIRV warheads outlawed? Seems like a good way to save some money on missiles and silos.
That's exactly why. They're too efficient. One Peacemaker holds 10 warheads, so you target 10 different places with one missile. A Minuteman holds 3 at the most. What would be better to have, one missile that can attack 10 targets, or 3 missles that can attack 9 targets?
 

bigredguy

Platinum Member
Mar 18, 2001
2,457
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Originally posted by: Grasshopper27
Originally posted by: SuperTool
Why were MIRV warheads outlawed? Seems like a good way to save some money on missiles and silos.
Treaties...

We still have MIRVs on some missiles, but not on others.

Hardly matters, more a "feel good" thing than anything else.

150 nuclear warheads on 150 missiles, or 1,500 nuclear warheads on 150 missiles, will it *really* matter if they have to be used?

Hopper
not in the least
 

AnyMal

Lifer
Nov 21, 2001
15,780
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Originally posted by: PsychoAndy
Originally posted by: SuperTool
Why were MIRV warheads outlawed? Seems like a good way to save some money on missiles and silos.
That's exactly why. They're too efficient. One Peacemaker holds 10 warheads, so you target 10 different places with one missile. A Minuteman holds 3 at the most. What would be better to have, one missile that can attack 10 targets, or 3 missles that can attack 9 targets?
I'd rather have 3 missiles attacking fewer targets, then a single missile with 10 warheads. The logic is simple; you have a greater chance of delivering your payload with 3 missiles versus 1, especially if countermeasures are taken into account.
 

T2T III

Lifer
Oct 9, 1999
12,899
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Originally posted by: Heisenberg
Is this a surprise?
No. Actually, several years ago, the U.S. did eliminate many silos (bases in North Dakota & South Dakota were affected.)

From these facilities, any of 150 Minuteman III missiles can be launched. The nuclear warheads can travel 6,000 miles in any direction at speeds of up to 15,000 mph. Each missile is 15 times more powerful than the Hiroshima atomic bomb, which killed a total of 200,000 people.
I actually slept next to a Minuteman III warhead - and I was still able to father a child. One time were were at a launch facility and the warhead had been pulled out of the ground for transport back to base. Unfortunately, a snowstorm quickly blew in and we had to abondon our regular vehicles to save gas. The trailer with the payload was our only option for heat. The MMIII was impressive. ;)

 

Darein

Platinum Member
Nov 14, 2000
2,640
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I sleep better at night honestly knowing these men and women are out the providing one of the best deterents to nations getting read to launch nuclear weapons at the United States, because they have to know that we will launch a full out attack on them. I say more power to the men and women manning the launch silos.
 

notfred

Lifer
Feb 12, 2001
38,241
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I had a computer class teacher back in high school who was one of those guys a long time back. He told us a really good story, but he may have embelished it a bit.... oh well, I'll tell it anyway.

So, he was on duty sitting 65ft under ground w/ one other guy, who happened to be a pretty good friend of his. All ofa sudden, they got the order to fire (was a drill, but they didn't know it at the time). They each had to get their code, and thier key, and whatever.... anyway, they each had a key in thier hand, and they were suppsoed to turn them simultaneously to launch the missle. My teacher said his friend basically said "I can't kill 1,000,000 people" my teacher then drew his gun on his friend, and told him to turn his key. He refused again..... my teacher pulled the trigger.... and they both fainted. My teacher thought he killed his friend, and his friend that he got shot. Apparently though, they laod your gun w/ blanks when they know that you're going to be doing training exercises.

It sounds less realistic now then it did back then, but who knows, it could be real.
 

440sixpack

Senior member
May 30, 2000
790
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Originally posted by: notfred
So, he was on duty sitting 65ft under ground w/ one other guy, who happened to be a pretty good friend of his. All ofa sudden, they got the order to fire (was a drill, but they didn't know it at the time). They each had to get their code, and thier key, and whatever.... anyway, they each had a key in thier hand, and they were suppsoed to turn them simultaneously to launch the missle. My teacher said his friend basically said "I can't kill 1,000,000 people" my teacher then drew his gun on his friend, and told him to turn his key. He refused again..... my teacher pulled the trigger.... and they both fainted. My teacher thought he killed his friend, and his friend that he got shot. Apparently though, they laod your gun w/ blanks when they know that you're going to be doing training exercises.
Cool story, sounds like the intro to WarGames. ;) Although I'm not sure of the point - if you shoot the guy who won't turn his key, you STILL can't turn both keys and launch. :confused:
 

Grasshopper27

Banned
Sep 11, 2002
7,013
0
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Originally posted by: Damage
We toured a Titan II site here, and my wife got to turn the key that would blow up 1/4 of the world.. It was very interesting to hear those stories..

I actually thought about buying my own, and living there! I thought that would be too funny..
Yep, saw a special about that on the History Channel. Cheap to buy, expensive to overhual and update.

A few of them have leaked and filled with water, when drained the interior was a mess.

Hopper
 

OutHouse

Lifer
Jun 5, 2000
36,413
616
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So, he was on duty sitting 65ft under ground w/ one other guy, who happened to be a pretty good friend of his. All ofa sudden, they got the order to fire (was a drill, but they didn't know it at the time). They each had to get their code, and thier key, and whatever.... anyway, they each had a key in thier hand, and they were suppsoed to turn them simultaneously to launch the missle. My teacher said his friend basically said "I can't kill 1,000,000 people" my teacher then drew his gun on his friend, and told him to turn his key. He refused again..... my teacher pulled the trigger.... and they both fainted. My teacher thought he killed his friend, and his friend that he got shot. Apparently though, they laod your gun w/ blanks when they know that you're going to be doing training exercises.

having worked the missile field for 5 years i can honestly say that story is false.
1. when the missile officers are in their hole they know that they have a 9mm loaded with real ball ammo. they check them out at the armory and load them at the clearing barrel. nobody just walks up and says "here is your weapon sir"
2. i cant say anymore without disclosing classified info. sorry.

 

UltraQuiet

Banned
Sep 22, 2001
5,755
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Cold War-era silos still ready for battle - Missile sites on Plains staffed 24 hours a day
In an effort to receive equal billing and to beat the drums for the only truly survivable leg of the nuclear triad, I will remind everyone that at all times there are at least *** Trident submarines underway on patrol.

As to the story about the drill <cough>bullsh!t<cough>.

Submarines once!
Submarines twice!
Holy jumpin' Jesus Christ!

:D
 

OutHouse

Lifer
Jun 5, 2000
36,413
616
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Originally posted by: DaveSohmer
Cold War-era silos still ready for battle - Missile sites on Plains staffed 24 hours a day
In an effort to receive equal billing and to beat the drums for the only truly survivable leg of the nuclear triad, I will remind everyone that at all times there are at least *** Trident submarines underway on patrol.

As to the story about the drill <cough>bullsh!t<cough>.

Submarines once!
Submarines twice!
Holy jumpin' Jesus Christ!

:D
Ok squid ;) you can stop beating your chest now. Ever hear of the Triad?

 

ElFenix

Elite Member
Super Moderator
Mar 20, 2000
101,745
6,089
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we stopped developing them to get the russians to do things. its all reagan's doing... he didn't like nuclear weapons at all. i used to know a lot more about it when i was up to date on US-soviet history
 

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