By Trevor Busch
If you’ve ever done much traveling off the beaten path in Montana, you’ve seen them.
Small, seemingly innocuous, concrete pads neatly fenced and festooned with a plethora of U.S. government warnings and military identifying information. They often seem to loom out of nowhere — the crest of a ridge, the summit of some foothill, mostly the parched prairie — around some corner or a few hundred yards off a secondary highway. They form a sort of patchwork quilt that dots the landscape throughout much of the state.
For those that don’t know what they’re looking at, that’s probably by design. For those that do, it’s the first sign they’re deep inside a nuclear missile field. More properly, an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) field. For this observer, it’s always been slightly disturbing to travel through these areas and imagine the level of destructive force resting quietly a few stories below ground just waiting for the proverbial button to be pushed, sending its horrifying payload sailing off to annihilate some foreign capital or retaliate against another military rival.
Some people believe the nuclear threat ended when the Cold War came to a conclusion in the early 1990s. Even the briefest examination of nuclear proliferation since that time — including rumours of fissile material that may or may not have gone missing from Russia or its former satellites in the post-Soviet period — should lead one to conclude that the nuclear threat has only escalated, not diminished. Since the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) came into force in 1970, three states have joined the nuclear club and refused to sign the NPT — India, Pakistan, and North Korea.
And others want them. The Middle East’s perennial bad boy, Iran, appears to again be contemplating development of nuclear weapons, to the consternation of the United States and much of the western world. Of course, that is one of the potential consequences when your president cancels a previous weapons-control deal and starts artificially ratcheting up the military pressure in the region until Iran begins petty retaliation.
In mid-June, I was in Great Falls, Mont. on holidays when my brother and I stumbled upon a museum at Malmstrom Air Force Base. We were obviously aware of the U.S. military presence in Montana and the vast missile fields we’d seen over the years, but it was an illuminating experience to learn about the history of silo construction and how the missiles are (potentially) fired and controlled from centrally-located, hardened underground facilities that also dot the Montana countryside. If you’ve done enough traveling in the state, you’ve seen them before, too: a few tin-sided outbuildings, usually a khaki air force yellow-brown, fenced with an access road. But that’s only on the surface. The real action is in the Launch Control Facility, or LCF, several stories below the ground.
Not that getting into Malmstrom is all that easy — accessing even the base museum requires a background check, complete with fingerprint scan, photograph and documents to be carried on your person at all times, as well as a military escort from the gate to the museum. They’re obviously not taking any chances on anyone inside a military-controlled facility. On the other hand, it doesn’t cost you anything, which is more than can be said about most museums these days.
Home to the 341st Missile Wing, operating and maintaining the state’s missile fields is really the only mission Malmstrom performs anymore. Military personnel on the base are mainly involved in ferrying men back and forth from LCFs by helicopter, and the base’s runway has been shut down since 1996. But there are still 150 fully-operational Minuteman III launch facilities (LFs), with missiles at the ready to be launched at a moment’s notice. These weapons can be equipped with MIRVs (multiple independently targeted re-entry vehicles) with up to three 170 kiloton warheads, capable of showering a specific target with multiple detonations for maximum destructive force.
Perhaps not surprisingly, it’s not presented that way by the base or museum staff. There was much talk about deterrence, weapons of last resort, the potential use of weapons “tactically” — such as detonations high in the atmosphere to produce an electromagnetic pulse effect to take out an enemy’s electronics and technology, which is pretty much everything today. There were careful words to ensure that the museum’s guests came away with the impression that America’s ICBM stable is a global force for good, with a sort of throwback “Peace is Our Profession” sloganology still soft-coating the idea of mutually-assured destruction, of armageddon and annihilation.
One footnote that was fascinating about the missile silos is that far from state-of-the-art, much of the technology is as dated as it comes. For instance, our guide explained that most of the LCFs were currently updating from eight inch floppy disks to 3.5 inch disk drives. This is on purpose — maintaining a monopoly on old, outdated technology that still functions properly is an insurance policy against possible cyber attack, among other security issues. It would be hard to hack a decades-old system with a modern laptop.
The use of the term “tactical” — which is more and more in vogue in nuclear weapons circles today — suggests that small-scale nuclear weapons should be viewed almost as a conventional option on a modern battlefield. This kind of idea hearkens back to the Eisenhower 1950s. A proponent of “Atoms for Peace” — a program Eisenhower presented to the United Nations to use nuclear weapons to create harbours, dredge shipping lanes, blast new canals, even to facilitate oilsands development in northern Alberta — at the time Eisenhower once told a reporter that he considered nuclear weapons to be “as available for use as conventional weapons.” One wonders where the world would be today had powers at the time started using “tactical” nuclear weapons on the world’s battlefields like rice thrown at a wedding. It’s disturbing to think that this kind of terminology is starting to creep back into modern nuclear theory.
The existence of nuclear weapons is an uncomfortable thing. It’s hard for a nation to possess them and claim that they are only a necessary evil, that they need to exist so that they will not be used, however logical or illogical that might sound to different people. They’re never suggested to be “first strike” weapons of offense, but we should all be darkly aware that’s exactly what they’re designed to be, no matter what we tell ourselves at the end of the day. Theorists of nuclear war would tell you that in almost every successful scenario studied involving a nuclear exchange, the so-called “victors” always launch first.
But theories are just theories, and most of us are probably alive today because the Soviet Union and the U.S. never decided to test that particular theory.