August 31, 2005

Inside nuclear bunker, awaiting fateful call

By Adam Tanner

QUEBEC LAUNCH CONTROL CENTER, Montana (Reuters) - Shortly
after a visitor entered a reinforced concrete bunker 60 feet
below ground in a remote area of Montana, an electronic beep
that could signal an order to launch nuclear missiles sounded.

"That's the message; can you please step to the back of the
capsule?" asked 1st Lt. Adam Bell as he sat beside Air Force
Capt. William Swan scanning buttons that could trigger 10 U.S.
missiles, each with up to three warheads.

The signal was just a test, as it has been since Malmstrom
Air Force Base opened the first U.S. land-based nuclear missile
site in 1961. "It gets your blood racing a little," said Bell.

Washington may be fighting a conventional war in Iraq and
developing exotic defenses against terrorist attack, but
Malmstrom with its 200 ICBMs remains a backbone of the U.S.
nuclear deterrent as the largest U.S. missile base.

"This is a world very few people know about -- ICBM
operations," said Col. Scott Gilson, who oversees missile
command and control. "We are damn proud of who we are and what
we do."

The job of firing the missiles falls to airmen like Bell
and Swan, both 27, who operate 20 launch bunkers on 24-hour
shifts. They stand ready to act if so ordered by the president.

They know secret codes to combination padlocks, behind
which are launch keys. "This is some of the most secure data in
the world," said Bell, who was fascinated by James Bond when
growing up.

If the airmen simultaneously turned keys on different sides
of their command console, deadly rockets from nearby fields
would travel at 15,000 mph (24,000 kph) up to 7,000 miles


In the Cold War, the Soviet Union was the prime target for
the ICBMs. Today, the missiles would be targeted from U.S.
Strategic Command in Nebraska only after launch, said Malmstrom
spokeswoman Capt. Elizabeth Benn.

The missile operators -- or "missileers" in Air Force lingo
-- have plenty of downtime in a tiny space occupied by military
equipment as well as a bed, refrigerator and microwave oven. "I
personally read a lot of books," said Alexander Speed, a fan of
J.R. Tolkien.

The bunkers also have televisions, and on September 11,
2001, missileers alerted one another to tune into the attacks
on the World Trade Center.

"This is one of those jobs you hope you never have to do
it," said Aaron Pifer, 29, who was on duty that day. "That's
the closest I've come since I've been here to doing anything."

On rare occasion, the shift extends over several days, such
as last Christmas, when crews had to stay five days underground
because replacements could not get through heavy snow.


Every day, maintenance crews visit several silos located at
the end of dirt roads off highways and farmland across 23,500
square miles, an area about the size of West Virginia.

"From the very first moment I could remember anything, I
remember that silo and understanding that we would be a target
if the unthinkable happened," Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer
said of a silo a mile from where he grew up. "It really had a
profound affect on me and my psyche."

Behind a fence topped by barbed wire, hardened concrete
caps the silos; an explosive charge would be needed to remove
it. "If you have a cow in the way, you pretty much have a
hamburger," said Capt. John Mora, who oversees maintenance

On a recent morning, two military officers entered codes
for two combination locks to open silo Q-20. A crew accompanied
by a reporter climbed down a 60-foot (18-meter) metal ladder to
check on the equipment, some of it dating from the 1960s.

What maintenance supervisor Master Sgt. Ken Hanson called
the "glamour part of the business" sat at the center of the
silo. Mostly enclosed and separate from the air conditioning,
diesel and other supporting hardware, the Minuteman III showed
the word "loaded" on its side.

An M-870 shotgun was stored inside the silo. "They're
prepared to kill whoever comes down the hole," Hanson said.

He added his crews did not need to worry about the lethal
load in their midst. "This is not scary as long as you are
doing your job as you're supposed to," he said.

Despite Malmstrom's long history, some say the base's days
may be waning as the United States could choose to rely on
Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming and Minot in North Dakota,
each of which has 150 missiles.

"If the next wave of decreases in nukes is divisible by
200, Malmstrom Air Force Base will cease to exist," Schweitzer
said about future arms control talks with Russia. "Without a
second mission at Malmstrom Air Force Base, their future is
very much at risk."