October 6, 2021
South Dakotans, knowing they would be at ground zero during a nuclear war, had varying opinions about the missiles in their midst. Some objected to being targets. That’s understandable. Others enjoyed the boost to the local economy. One resident said, “These silos are here to preserve peace. At worst, they’re a necessary evil. At best they help our local economy…” That’s understandable too…I guess.
The visitor center had a terrific museum that covered the history of the nuclear arms race from all sides – US and Soviet, pro- and anti-nuclear activists, etc. You’d learn what it was like to work in and around these weapons. You’d learn what was involved in launching a missile. And you’d learn the devastating effects of one of these weapons.
Early in the nuclear weapons era, the United States and (former) Soviet Union engaged in an arms race. The idea was to ensure that, in the event of a nuclear war, the adversaries could destroy the other many times over. An acronym aptly described this strategy: MAD – Mutual Assured Destruction.
Six Minuteman Missile Wings were spread throughout Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming, Nebraska, Colorado, and Missouri. Ellsworth AFB, near Rapid City, SD, was home to the 44th Strategic Missile Wing which consisted of the 66th, 67th, and 68th Missile Squadrons. Each of these squadrons was composed of five flights where each flight controlled 10 Minuteman missiles. A Minuteman II missile carried a 1.2 megaton warhead, equivalent to 1,200,000 tons of TNT.
Each of the six missile wings controlled between 150 and 200 missiles. The missile wings together maintained and controlled 1,000 Minuteman II and Minuteman III missiles. But on September 27, 1991, the order came for the “Minuteman II Launch facilities…to be rendered non-launch capable.”
Each flight consisted of 10 widely dispersed missile silos and a command center. Missile silos were unmanned. The only thing protecting each missile site was a barbed wire topped chain link fence. From a distance you wouldn’t even know it was there. That didn’t mean you could simply hop over the fence and play with a real live nuclear missile.
Which countries have nuclear weapons? Today that list includes the United States, Great Britain, France, Israel, Russia, China, India, Pakistan, and North Korea. However, of the more than 13,000 nuclear warheads, 90% are in the arsenals of the United States and Russia. MAD is alive and well.
One display was a notebook with aerial photos of major US cities and the rings of destruction that would befall it if a Minuteman II warhead were to explode above that city. Pretty sobering if you happened to live in or near one of those cities.
Red (2.0 miles) – All structures except hardened facilities destroyed
Another exhibit related several incidents on each side that could easily have led to Armageddon.
- October 27, 1962 – During the Cuban Missile Crisis US destroyers dropped depth charges to force Soviet subs to surface. Unknown to the Americans these subs carried nuclear-tipped torpedoes. A Soviet officer almost launched a nuclear weapon in retaliation.
- September 26, 1983 – A Soviet colonel chose to ignore an alarm that the US had launched 5 ICBMs. He thought the US wouldn’t launch just 5 missiles. He was right. Sunlight reflected from high altitude clouds triggered the alarm.
- November 9, 1979 – NORAD computers reported that a Soviet sub-launched ballistic missile attack was underway. Minutes later it reported that a Soviet ICBM launch was underway too. Before we could retaliate, it was found that a technician had inserted a training tape simulating a Soviet attack into a NORAD computer.
- January 25, 1995 – Russian early warning systems detected a missile thought to be on course toward Moscow. Russian President Boris Yeltsin almost entered launch codes to initiate their retaliatory strike. Before his did it was determined that the missile was just a research rocket launched from Norway to study the Northern Lights.
These are just the ones we know about. How many close calls were there that we don’t know about? What would you do if you did know?
Once I finished at the visitor center I headed to a missile site. It wasn’t much to look at. But it’s not really supposed to be an attention getter. Disney World it ain’t.
While I couldn’t go into the silo, there was a diagram that gave me a good idea of what was down there.
I did get to peek into the silo and see a now inactive Minuteman II missile. It’s astounding how much destructive power could be carried on top of that missile.
Not launching these weapons depends on control being in the hands of people who are rational. History is filled with powerful people who aren’t. And that’s what scares the h*** out of me.