Aces in the Hole

Though the Cold War is over, they’re still on alert 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. The Independent goes underground with Montana’s nuclear warriors.


Talk about your long commutes to work.

Consider how a typical day begins for Maj. Rick Lawrence or Staff Sgt. Mike Gettlinger. They and the missile maintenance teams under their command are up before dawn and arrive for work between 5 and 7 a.m. Within two hours they obtain their technical orders, instruction manuals, spare parts and cold weather survival gear and load it into trucks. After a short briefing, the team hits the road for anywhere from 35 minutes to three hours in good weather, or—as is more typically the case in northern Montana in the winter—four to five hours in the ice, snow and sub-zero wind chills.

Upon arriving at their work site, they face another hour and a half outdoors just to penetrate the multiple layers of redundant locks, hatches, delay timers and security systems protecting the precious contents of this steel and reinforced-concrete tomb: a Minuteman III Intercontinental Ballistic Missile. Already six and a half hours into their day, and these folks haven’t even begun their assignment.

Through a single access hatch only 42 inches wide (secured by an inner door weighing 14,000 pounds) the team hauls literally tons of equipment down into the launch facility, or “LF,” commonly known as the missile “silo.” There, they will work virtually uninterrupted for the next six to eight hours in order to finish their job and re-secure the site within a 16-hour window.

Once inside, the crew faces all the hazards typical of an industrial site: electrical shocks, moving cables and winches, stray tools, obstacles to bang your head on or trip over, and the ever-present risk of objects or people falling 90 feet down the launch tube. Factor in the inherent stress of working on an 80,000-pound piece of hardware that can vaporize everything within a two-mile radius within 1/1000th of a second, and it’s easy to understand why safety is paramount.

“We realize that if we screw something up with a nuclear weapon, it’s pretty major,” says Lawrence.

Such is the life of the tool-pushers of the 341st Space Wing at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Great Falls. Encompassing a 23,500 square-mile region—an area roughly the size of West Virginia—the 341st maintains the largest missile complex in the Western Hemisphere.

Contained within that area some 250 miles wide and spanning nine Montana counties are 200 Minuteman III missiles, each armed with up to three independently targeted warheads with a range of nearly 7,000 miles. Traveling at speeds exceeding 15,000 mph, or 23 times the speed of sound, they can reach their farthest targets within 30 minutes. Were Montana to secede from the Union, it would instantly become the world’s fourth largest nuclear power.

It is an enviable position, especially among some developing nations, who view membership in the world’s “nuclear family” as an instant rite of passage to global respect and prestige. Currently, only China and Russia have the capability to strike North America with ICBMs, though Iraq, Iran and North Korea are making considerable strides in weapons and delivery systems technology. Without a doubt, there are those who would go to great lengths to secure such information.

Because of both the logistical and security challenges posed by removing a missile or its warheads—the launch door covering the silo is four and a half feet thick and weighs 110 tons—virtually all maintenance and upkeep is performed on-site. As a result, the men and women of the 341st who maintain, secure and keep those missiles on alert 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, will drive approximately 9 million miles in a single year.

“I drove a Suburban once that had 294,000 miles on it,” one airman comments. “I didn’t know that cars would go that far.”

What is the payoff for such Herculean efforts? In 1999, the 341st boasted an alert rate of 99.74 percent, the highest in the nation. In layman’s terms, that means that at any given time, less than one missile per day is not ready to launch literally at a moment’s notice.

“The whole idea is to be so ready and so powerful that no one will ever dare attack us,” says Maj. Lawrence. “Because if we have to launch a missile, we’ve failed. We’ve failed.”

Passage to India

The morning of my visit to Malmstrom I’m blessed with a gloriously sunny day and my official escorts, Capt. Brian Livergood and Senior Airman Connie Etscheidt, are as cooperative as the unseasonable January weather. Mercifully, the Air Force has spared me from a long haul to some distant outpost near Lewistown or Cut Bank. Instead, ours is but a short hop to India-01, a Missile Alert Facility (or “MAF”) only 35 minutes from Great Falls.

Like every branch of the military, Air Force personnel speak in a ubiquitous alphabet soup of three-letter acronyms referred to, appropriately enough, as TLAs. The MAF, along with the Launch Control Center, (or “LCC,” the command capsule buried beneath it), are like the hub of a bicycle wheel. The 10 spokes surrounding it are the unmanned LFs which house the missiles, what Livergood calls “the pointy end of the spear.” No LF is closer than three miles from any other LF or MAF, a safeguard designed to increase survivability in the event of a nuclear strike.

Capt. Livergood steers our car through a disorienting maze of paved and gravel roads until we pull up to a chain-link fence surrounding a ranch-style house on one and a half acres of farmland. Waiting to meet us is a grim, smooth-faced airman with just a wisp of a mustache and an M-16 rifle cradled to his chest. If there were even a hint of uncertainty about the deadly earnestness with which this 19-year-old performs his duties, a sign on the fence removes all doubt: “WARNING: PERSONNEL ARE AUTHORIZED TO USE DEADLY FORCE.” The airman meticulously transfixes us with a metal detector and double-checks our IDs and visitor credentials, then allows us entry.

At first glance, the MAF (also referred to as “topside”) is an unremarkable 1960s vintage building. Outfitted with a kitchen, bedrooms, toilets, showers, a small gym, an office and a common living room with large-screen TV and satellite dish, the MAF can comfortably house 12-15 personnel and remain self-sufficient for about two weeks, though most topside staff stay for only three- to five-day intervals. Were it not for the omnipresent members of the Armed Response Team (or “cops”) with their M-16s, the place could easily be mistaken for your neighborhood fire station.

Capt. Livergood approaches a security door at one end of the living room and speaks to Staff Sgt. Stephen Boyd inside, flight security controller for India-01. After a brief exchange of paperwork through a mail slot and Livergood’s requisite response, “All secure and no duress,” Sgt. Boyd buzzes us inside.

“My duties and responsibilities are to control anybody and everybody who goes through my flight area,” explains Boyd, which covers a radius of 75 to 100 miles. Boyd is the “top cop” at India-01, and if there’s a security foul-up on his watch, it’ll likely be his head the commanders will roll.

Although all silos are unmanned, they are hardly unattended. On every LF stands a 20-30-foot white pole containing a highly sensitive motion detector that registers even the slightest movement within its perimeter. A ground squirrel, a tumbleweed, even a puddle of water shimmering in the wind can be enough to trip the alarm. And every alarm receives a prompt—and heavily armed—response.

Moreover, since an LF is most vulnerable when a missile maintenance team is inside, Air Force protocol demands what’s known as a “15 and five,” meaning that at least 15 cops must be ready to respond to that site within five minutes’ time.

While we wait for approval to go below ground, Sgt. Boyd demonstrates the arsenal deployed for that response. In addition to their usual accouterment of M-16s and 9-mm sidearms, the cops are also provided with M-203 grenade launchers and M-60 machine guns, “our bad mama-jamas,” as Boyd calls them, and a 10,000-pound armor-plated HumVee to travel in. With such intimidating firepower, one can only imagine who would risk challenging this strike force on a barren stretch of Montana highway.

Most LFs have at least one other security feature in place: The farmers and ranchers who lease out their land as missile sites to the federal government. I’m told that on those rare occasions when someone parks a car or RV in the driveway of an LF, a phone will ring at Malmstrom from the rancher who wants to know what someone is doing with “my missile.”

Following my crash course in Air Force munitions, Capt. Livergood informs me that the missile combat crew is ready to receive us. We are buzzed through a second security door and begin our descent into the belly of the beast.

The 24-Hour Capsule

Buried deep in the bedrock some 60 to 120 feet below each MAF is the Launch Control Center or “capsule,” the brains of every nuclear missile complex. If our nation were ever to launch a land-based nuclear missile—and only the president of the United States can issue that order and provide the launch codes—this capsule (and 19 others just like it around Malmstrom) is where that message could be received and executed.

As we reach the bottom of the 70-foot elevator shaft we emerge in front of a Tylenol-shaped capsule the size of a railroad car, suspended from the floor and ceiling. Open at one end stands a steel and reinforced concrete blast door several feet thick. Though the door weighs eight tons, it can easily be pulled closed with one hand. This is the crew’s first line of defense against a nuclear detonation and its ensuing electromagnetic pulse.

“It’s been joked that if we did get hit by a nuclear blast, the blast won’t kill you, but the fall to the bottom of the crater will,” says Livergood, himself a missileer with Malmstrom’s 12th Missile Squadron.

Seated inside is the two-person missile combat crew. Each missileer has a computer console that receives a constant stream of data and instructions from United States Strategic Command (STRATCOM) in Omaha, Neb., which oversees our nation’s entire “Nuclear Triad:” submarines, bombers and land-based missiles. Simultaneously, each computer is monitoring the “health” of 10 primary missiles and 10 secondary missiles in the field.

Though it’s peculiar to hear missileers speak of these weapons in anthropomorphic terms, keep in mind that a nuclear missile isn’t just a really big bottle rocket waiting in cold storage for someone to light its fuse. For lack of a better metaphor, a missile is a living, thinking piece of software and hardware—albeit a supremely large and unspeakably destructive one—that requires constant attention.

As such, missileers continually monitor its temperature, security systems, environmental controls, solid propellant, computer components, guidance set, targeting information, and so on. Interestingly, Malmstrom’s Minuteman III systems are powered by the Montana Power Company and backed up by heavy-duty battery cells and diesel generators dating back to the late 1930s. Y2K was a concern only insofar as the generators needed to be topped off and all batteries double-checked in the event of a power failure.

The capsule itself has a single bathroom the size of an airplane toilet and one cot at the end of the room. Although the capsule receives some air from the surface, in the event of an impending nuclear, chemical or biological attack, the missileers can seal the capsule entirely within three minutes. With its stored water, MREs and air regeneration unit, the crew can remain self-sufficient for up to six months.

When missileers “pull alert,” they remain in the capsule for a 24-hour stretch or until they are relieved. During that time, only one missileer may sleep at any given time. They may be busy or bored, depending upon what’s happening with the missiles they’re monitoring, as well as how many nuclear exercises are underway throughout the world.

“We’re lucky,” says Capt. Margie Vasko, a missileer with the 564th Missile Squadron. “It’s not like the old days when you had the Omaha farm report and that was it.” Today, missileers have television, VCRs and phones. Some even work on their Master’s degree via correspondence courses.

Periodically, the capsule receives alert messages from STRATCOM in its constant rehearsal for war. Whenever a message is sent out, it is received by the entire fleet. While I’m present, the crew receives about a half-dozen such messages. Each time I’m asked to briefly step outside the capsule and face the elevator. With my back turned, the missileers decipher each classified message from their code books. Although the chances are remote, any one of those messages could be a launch command and until it’s deciphered, the crew has no way of knowing whether it’s an exercise or a real-world event.

Turning the Key

Every missileer undergoes a training session in a simulator, during which they do nothing but practice turning the key to launch a missile. Missileers always know it’s an exercise and never drill inside an active LCC.

When an incoming message is received, the crew must verify that it’s authentic based on its format and how it breaks in their code tables. Once the message is verified, the missile is enabled, akin to cocking the hammer of a gun. Next, they ensure that the missile is properly targeted. (Missile combat crews always know where their missiles are targeted, though under the terms of the 1994 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, on a day-to-day basis all Russian and American missiles are supposedly targeted into the ocean. No such treaty exists with China.)

In order to issue a “launch vote,” four spring-loaded switches must be turned simultaneously within one second of one another. In order for that missile to launch, a second capsule with two separate crew members must issue a second launch vote.

“When that’s done they pull you out of the trainer and say, ‘OK. What do you think? How do you feel about this? What’s your conscience telling you? Is this something you could do for real?’” explains Livergood. “So very early on, you make a decision: Is this what I’m going to do? Is my soul, is my conscience clear doing this?”

“I think that everyone goes through a period of soul-searching once you’re selected for this job,” says Vasko. “But day to day, it doesn’t really have much effect.”

Like any crew assignment, the missileers’ job involves a lot of waiting: waiting for maintenance teams, waiting for messages to arrive, waiting for your shift to end. I am told that the most difficult part of the job isn’t the potential of “What if?” but rather life’s more mundane, day-to-day concerns: sick children that cannot be comforted, missed recitals and soccer games, lonely nights away from spouses.

And if you thought explaining the facts of life to your children was hard, imagine what it was like for Vasko, the single mother of two 5- and 6-year-old girls, who had to explain to them the concept of mutual assured destruction.

“First I told them that my job is to take care of the rockets,” explains Vasko. “And then they wanted to know more. So I explained to them, ‘We have rockets with bombs on them. The bad guys have rockets with bombs on them. Mommy goes to work and makes sure that they know that if they shoot their rockets with bombs at us, she’ll shoot the rockets with bombs at them. So nobody shoots their rockets.’”

“They understand it at five and six, that it’s called deterrence,” she adds. “But they don’t know how to pronounce ‘deterrence’ very well.”

I’m also told that there’s not a single missileer on duty who has never received an alert message while he or she is, well, temporarily indisposed. As one missileer put it, “We joke that the alarm is hooked up to the bathroom door and once it shuts, that’s when the alarm goes off.”

The solution? Waddle out there and answer it.

“Nothing stops your response to an alarm,” jokes Livergood. Just one of the many prices of freedom.

Deep Impact

Amid the humor and all the gracious hospitality of my visit to Malmstrom, it’s remarkably easy to lose sight of the larger implications of what their job is all about.

Surprisingly few questions I asked were politely dismissed as classified information. The bomb yield of the Minuteman III warhead was one of them. Nevertheless, the Center for Defense Information in Washington, D.C., estimates the yield of a single Minuteman III warhead at 335 kilotons, or the equivalent of 300,000 tons of TNT. Another web site puts it closer to 20 megatons, the equivalent of 20 million tons of TNT. For comparison, the bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945 was 13 kilotons.

To mentally grasp such destructive force, a description provided by the Boston-based Physicians for Social Responsibility is helpful. Were a 20-megaton nuclear device to detonate over a city like Missoula, everything within two miles would rise to a temperature of 20 million degrees Fahrenheit and be instantly vaporized. At a distance of four miles, the blast would produce pressures of 25 pounds per square inch, with winds in excess of 650 miles per hour, obliterating buildings and even deep underground shelters. At 10 miles, the heat would be intense enough to melt sheet metal. At 16 miles, blast winds would exceed 100 miles per hour, igniting a giant firestorm more than 30 miles across and covering 800 square miles, producing temperatures in excess of 1,400 degrees.

At 30 miles, the heat would be so intense that all exposed skin would suffer third-degree burns. At 40 miles, anyone who turned to gaze into this artificial sunrise would be blinded instantly. And then there are the more enduring effects that would ensue, such as nuclear fallout, ionic and atmospheric disturbances, radiation sickness, water, food and crop contamination, ad infinitum. Needless to say, the death rate within 50-75 miles would surely approach 100 percent.

Such a horrific scenario is provided not as criticism but as perspective on the grave nature of the work performed by the men and women of the 341st. Those who support their nuclear mission, not only for military and political reasons but for economic ones as well, would argue that Malmstrom’s more than 9,000 active duty military, civilian and contractor staff contributed about $264 million into the Great Falls economy in 1999, roughly 35 percent of the city’s economic base. That figure doesn’t include contributions in the way of volunteer and public services, such as search and rescue missions, fire response, Red Cross blood donations, etc.

As I leave the capsule and hear the baritone clunk of the blast door close behind us and the rhythmic hammering of the blast pins riveting back into place, I notice a list of names, dates and numbers hand-painted on the wall. Capt. Livergood explains that whenever a missileer ends his or her tour of duty, they hold a small ceremony commemorating the number of alerts he or she pulled. I notice how many of them spent a year or more of their lives underground.

Few branches of the military can trace such a clear and unbroken path into their past as Malmstrom. Regardless of your views on American nuclear policy, there is something awesome about this job which has been performed here continuously and uninterrupted since Oct. 26, 1961 when, in the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis, President John Kennedy put Malmstrom’s first 10 missiles on alert—and on the map—when he referred to them as America’s “Aces in the Hole.”

Before I go, I ask Capt. Livergood if he thinks these missiles will always be here.

“Yes,” he says. “I think that as long as the U.S. exists, there will always be missiles, because they really are the foundation of U.S. policy. Like any foundation, you don’t want that foundation to move. And that’s why nuclear weapons are a good investment. You need to decide, do you want to build on sand or do you want to build on rock? Nuclear weapons are the rock.”


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