U.S. Nuclear Missiles Are Outdated. Fixing Them Is Risky

Youf a piece of equipment breaks inside Captain Kaz “Dexter” Moffett’s underground command center at the Alpha-01 Missile Alert Facility, it’s marked with a paper tag that reads either warning or danger. A few are still hanging from this tiny capsule that is buried 70ft below the east Wyoming’s high plains. One of them is attached to shut-off valves which control water flow in an emergency. There’s another one on a ventilation hatch. Because the shock-absorber device, first used in 1963 in order to withstand a thermonuclear explosion, has now stopped working, the entire command capsule is built on steel stilts. So there’s a tag for Air Force maintenance teams to fix that too.

Then there are malfunctions that aren’t marked. Moffett’s computer monitor—the one that enables him to keep watch on a fleet of 10 nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs)—has a flashing glitch on the bottom of the screen. Because his phone line to classified information is very weak, he cannot hear Air Force officers who command more than 100 additional nuclear missiles over 9,600 sq. mi. “You can hear them pretty clearly if you stand on an angle, on one leg, and jump up and down,” Moffett says, smiling. “It’s all part of the job. We spend a lot of time saying to ourselves, ‘Hey, how are we going to make this work today?’”

Walking into Moffett’s capsule at Alpha-01 is like walking into the past. Since the U.S. military placed the equipment here decades ago, banks of industrial cables and turquoise electronic racks have been found there. Look closely at the machines and you’ll find names of manufacturers like Radio Corp. of America, defunct since 1987, and Hughes Aircraft Co., defunct since 1997. Although some of the systems may have seen updates over time, the advances made aren’t easily recognisable to those who lived in the age of the personal-computer revolution and the internet age. The entire ICBM fleet runs on less computational power than what’s now found inside the smartphone in your pocket. Air Force maintenance crews take parts out of warehouses, hire a contractor and make it to their specifications.

If an order ever came for Moffett, 29, to unleash the missiles under his command, the directive—which only a U.S. President can give—would come in the form of what’s called an Emergency Action Message. The order would appear on Moffett’s glitching trichromatic monitor via a computer program that still relies on floppy disks, initiating a series of steps to launch the missiles. After a machine converted the command hub’s digital signal into an analog signal, a terminal countdown sequence would start. The receiver in a missile silo can recognize the signal. “I never saw equipment like this in my life until I came down here,” says Lieutenant Jessica Fileas, 32, another Air Force missileer and Moffett’s shift partner on the day’s 24-hour alert. “It’s unique.”

For a generation, the U.S. “triad” of nuclear-capable bombers, submarines, and ICBMs has inched toward obsolescence as the nation focused on other pressing security threats like terrorism and cyberattacks. The intended life spans of these Cold War weapons is years, so they require extensive maintenance. Also, spare parts are scarce.

This leaves the U.S. with no choice but to make. It can keep the current fleet, but at increasing cost—the price of ICBM maintenance alone has risen 17% over the past half-decade, to nearly $482 million per year. The Pentagon can also retire its nuclear forces. This could upset the international strategic balance, which is meant to prevent any country from starting a nuclear war. Pentagon’s goal is to invest $1 trillion in future decades to repair all three legs.

Joe Biden is PresidentHe came to power with the aim of decreasing nuclear weapons’ influence on American policy. Biden considered ending the ICBM part of the triad. This option was scrapped after intelligence agencies discovered that China was increasing its nuclear-weapons stocks faster than they had anticipated. “When you are watching China increase rapidly, looking to triple the number of weapons it has, it did not seem appropriate for the U.S. to unilaterally seek to decrease at this point in time,” an Administration official tells TIME. The view was reinforced after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, during which President Vladimir Putin has threatened to use nukes against the U.S. and European allies.

Skeptics are still asking whether every bomber, missile and submarine the U.S. military requires to be replaced in order to modernize an arsenal that was designed to win World War II. Is the country seriously considering the financial and strategic consequences of having another generation committed to this task? “Americans have forgotten about the inherent danger of nuclear weapons,” says Lindi Kirkbride, 73, a Wyoming activist who led demonstrations in the 1980s against the military’s last attempt to replace ICBMs. “Younger people don’t seem to realize these weapons pose the same existential threat to the world as global warming.”

Volumes of technical manuals provide guidance for maintenance crews. (Benjamin Rasmussen for TIME)

Maintenance crews can find guidance in volumes of technical manuals.

Benjamin Rasmussen for TIME

Chuck Hagel from Nebraska, who was a Republican Senator and former Secretary to Defense, said that the U.S. should decide whether it is necessary to maintain its land-based missiles. “The nation needs to either replace these systems or do away with them,” Hagel says.

The final decision over whether and how to replace America’s aging nuclear forces lies with Congress. Biden is now onboard, and the Pentagon believes that it will receive all $1 trillion of funding to fix the triad. That includes $100 billion to pay for all land-based ICBMs. Air Force representatives organized the April town hall to inform communities of what’s coming. This dizzying and decades-long project, which is now in its initial stages, will be among the most expensive and complicated in military history. This involves the excavation and removal of 450 missiles, 45 command centers in Wyoming, Nebraska and Colorado as well as paying nearly 9,800 landowners on 193,000 acres to get permission. Then, construction and installation of new equipment. The military plans to replace all missiles, launch centers and silos and to also rip apart and replace the extensive underground network of pressure cables that connect these buildings.

The Minuteman IIIs ICBMs are currently buried in silos that have been hardened at intervals of several miles across the Great Plains. Behind 8-ft. razor-wire fences in wheat fields, cattle pastures, and off-farm roads, 400 missiles are on hair-trigger alert—ready for blastoff—every moment of the day.

A military vehicle transports equipment on a mission to reinstall a Minuteman III at a missile silo in Pine Bluffs, Wyo. (Benjamin Rasmussen for TIME)

An army vehicle transports equipment during a mission to reinstall the Minuteman III in a Pine Bluffs missile silo, Wyo.

Benjamin Rasmussen for TIME

Attentive maintenance crews F.E. Many times, the shifts at Warren Air Force Base are started before sunrise. The facilities they visit can be 100 miles or more from base, and it takes a while for the work trucks to haul out there in the snow or rain, especially if that day’s cargo includes a hydrogen bomb. The mission of the Minuteman III is to be reinstalled at Pine Bluffs’ missile silo on Tuesday, July 11. It travels through flat and open countryside, passing occasional black steer herds or farm buildings as it heads east. As the military vehicles speed by, drivers crane their necks.

The convoy stops on Wyoming Highway 215 after an hour. If you didn’t know what you were looking for, you’d likely pass Launch Facility A-05 without paying it any mind. It’s a fenced-off area with some antennas, a slab of concrete on rails, and a few other public-utility features. But under the slab rests the most advanced land-based nuclear missile in the U.S. arsenal—at least it will after Technical Sergeant Brian “Fish” Fiscella, 42, and his team install it.

Air Force Maintenance crew pushes past the padlocked fence and drives to the ground hatch on the other side of the slab. Then, they use a screw jack hand-operated to open the 2,000-lb. lid. Once it’s pulled away, a team member dials combination codes into two inner lids to gain access. They climb down the ladder to reach the underground shaft, which measures 42 inches in diameter. It’s a two-story climb to a maintenance floor where halogen lights glow above whirring machines along the rounded walls. Minuteman III, which is located in the middle, points skyward and can launch a nuke strike at any place on the globe in less than 30 minutes. The ICBM measures more than five feet in diameter and is 60 feet tall. It has a black nose cone that houses a thermonuclear weapon that can cause destruction at least twenty times greater than the atomic bomb which killed over 140,000 people at Hiroshima.

Fiscella and his team don’t spend time thinking about that. On this day, two of the unit’s missiles are down for maintenance. This ICBM must be brought back online. Besides, they’ve spent hundreds of hours working in underground silos like this, removing and replacing truckloads of parts to ensure the 52-year-old weapon will launch if the order is ever given. It involves lifting a 200-lb. You will need to set up a cage surrounding the missile, and you’ll also have to read technical manuals as thick as telephone books. Every task can be done in a uniform way.

Preparing a Minuteman III to be lowered into the silo. (Benjamin Rasmussen for TIME)

The preparation of a Minuteman III for being lowered into the silo.

Benjamin Rasmussen for TIME

As another team from above begins to lift the 110-ton launch gate overhead, they begin pulling out wrenches and lug nuts as well as harnesses, winches, and other tools. After the concrete and steel door has been moved, a modified tractor trailer transporting the massive missile tilts upwards to position the vehicle over the hole. This isn’t an easy task. This involves sweat, heavy tools and a lot of progress. Refer to the technical manuals for details on how to do it properly.

The A-05 site was built in October 1963, at the same time as nine other missile silos and Fileas’ and Moffett’s launch-control capsule. Much of the equipment is the same as that capsule. Ventilation keeps the silo at 70°F, a respite from the summer heat outside, with controlled humidity to keep all the machinery operating properly.

Everything in the silo suddenly goes black. Standing underground next to one of the world’s most powerful weapons during an unexpected blackout is unnerving, but the Air Force maintenance team is unmoved. It’s the sort of thing they’ve come to expect working with this equipment. The wait is long for the power to flow through a distribution panel, which was made decades ago. The darkness makes it difficult to decide whether an on-site generator or commercial electricity will come in handy. “The power will come back on, just give it a second,” Fiscella says. “A lot of this stuff is dated and old. It breaks.”

Indeed. The high bay hangar, where Air Force personnel manage the W78- and W87 thermonuclear weaponsheads, was once damaged by a roof leak. Crews used cranes and harnesses to reach the leaky locks on the heavy launch doors above Minuteman III, which were rusted. The teams battle water intrusion and corrosion. Minuteman III is made up of hundreds of thousands and there are always new components.

Wyoming’s maintenance crews replace an average of five components every day. Sometimes, a component can be replaced in military stock if it fails. Other times, an electrical adapter or connector gives out, and it’s been decades since anyone has seen one. The Air Force can’t simply pull something off the shelves at Home Depot and slap it on a nuclear missile, so entire teams are dedicated to locating spare parts. If it can’t be found, the military will contract a machine shop to manufacture it from original specifications, which can be pricey. Maintenance expenses have ballooned to $55,000 an hour for missiles and equipment held year-round in temperature-controlled silos buried deep underground.

Air Force maintenance teams fix decades-old equipment across the Great Plains to ensure that 400 nuclear-­tipped ICBMs remain on alert every moment of the day (Benjamin Rasmussen for TIME)

Air Force maintenance teams fix decades-old equipment across the Great Plains to ensure that 400 nuclear-­tipped ICBMs remain on alert every moment of the day

Benjamin Rasmussen for TIME

According to military, the new ICBM will be called the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent. The Sentinel was formally named the Sentinel by the Air Force in April. It will feature improved rocket boosters and composite materials as well new guidance systems. The open architecture design will enable software upgrades and other improvements without the need to undergo a total overhaul. Air Force commanders say it’s an easier, less expensive way to support the missile’s intended 50-year life cycle than pulling the missile apart by hand or painstaking nose-to-tail refurbishments.

Air Force and Army Corps of Engineers personnel already began to travel across Wyoming in order to prepare environmental-impact analyses, rights of entrance, and other construction plans. The Wyoming missile field construction will start in 2024. Construction on silos and control centres will begin in 2026 as more people arrive and plans come together. For nine consecutive years, crews will aim to open one silo per week. In the meantime the Sentinel missile has been prepared for its first flight at Vandenberg Space Force Base in California.

It takes around 90 seconds for the lights to flicker and the machines to come back into life. “All right, back to work,” Fiscella tells the crew. “We’re going to be behind schedule.”

In her front yard, Mato Winyun can see the Air Force team working at Launch Facility A-05, but doesn’t know what they are doing. A half mile down the road, she lives in a white one-story farmhouse hidden behind evergreen trees and bushes. It stands tall against the afternoon sky. “I don’t ask any questions, but it seems important,” says Winyun, 81, her white hair twisted in two braids in keeping with her Lakota heritage.

Like many of her neighbors, Winyun doesn’t expect the Minuteman III to ever climb out of the wheat fields on a column of rocket fire. But it’s programmed to trace a fiery arc to about 70 miles above earth, shedding three different rocket stages within three minutes. In outer space, far from Winyun’s view, a cone-shaped re-entry vehicle and the thermonuclear warhead inside would maneuver toward its target at around 15,000 m.p.h. Navigation relies on an inertial guidance system with spinning gyroscopes—not satellite signals. If it’s even .05% off, it could mean a difference of 20 miles or more.

The re-entry vehicle would spin clockwise and fall through the earth’s atmosphere at speeds several times faster than a rifle bullet. Within a matter of minutes, the hydrogen bomb would explode at a distance of a few hundred miles above ground zero. This will produce a long fireball with temperatures in excess to millions. Within a distance of half a mile, it would completely incinerate all buildings and people. Structures would be swept away by shock waves. The environment and water supplies would be contaminated by residual fallout, which could cause health issues for survivors. There would be many casualties.

That’s a mission that nobody wants to see. Yet, this nation requires these ICBMs to stop Russia, China and North Korea from ever considering launching a military attack against the U.S., according to Pentagon officials. These nations, according to the bizarre logic of nuclear warfare planning, are not allowed to do so because they fear the Minuteman IIIs might unleash their own destruction. This is why, according to Biden and other Defense Department officials, the U.S. must replace its aging missiles rather than continue to fight for the existing system.

Critics claim this idea is outdated Cold War doctrine. Their argument is that thermonuclear bombers carried by long-range and submarine bombers can be enough to stop hostile countries from pursuing their nuclear weapons. What’s more, they worry, ICBMs could trigger an inadvertent nuclear disaster through a faulty launch warning, an adversary’s miscalculation over U.S. intentions, or some other blunder. Numerous near misses were made during the Cold War. However, the eventual annihilation for a large portion of the human population was avoided through luck or common sense by low-ranking officers. To avoid escalating tensions between Russia and the Pentagon, the Pentagon delayed a planned ICBM launch in February. This was due to Russia’s war in Ukraine. This kind of precarious situation is evidence that the weapons might need to be scrapped, according to anti-nuclear organizations.

Jim Young hoped to bring a wind farm to west Nebraska, but Air Force missile plans nixed it. (Benjamin Rasmussen for TIME)

Jim Young wanted to establish a windfarm in West Nebraska. But, Air Force missile plans prevented it from happening.

Benjamin Rasmussen for TIME

A second aspect to the silos that isn’t widely discussed in America’s heartland is that they’re a kind of strategic bait for other nations’ nuclear strikes. Nuclear “counterforce strategy” emphasizes the pre-emptive destruction of an adversary’s nuclear weapons before they can be launched. As a reason to build new ICBMs, the U.S. military has taken advantage of this concept. The thinking goes that if the U.S. didn’t have land-based missiles, Russia or China could simply launch an all-out attack on just six U.S. strategic targets: the seat of government in Washington, three nuclear-bomber bases (in North Dakota, Missouri, and Louisiana), and two nuclear-submarine ports (in Washington State and Georgia). “The target set expands from six major targets to well over 400 targets with the ICBM-based leg,” says Air Force General Anthony Cotton, who commands the branch’s nuclear forces and is Biden’s nominee to take over U.S. Strategic Command. “It gives the President, the Commander in Chief, a myriad of options, and taking away a leg of the triad takes away some of those options.”

That’s the view from strategists who wake up and prepare for nuclear war each day. But antinuke activists see it more skeptically: if American ICBMs’ stated purpose is to draw adversaries’ missiles and absorb nuclear attacks so the rest of us don’t have to, then the states that host them are being sacrificed. “We should not be trying to ‘lure’ a nuclear attack against U.S. territory,” says Tom Collina, director of policy at Ploughshares Fund, a San Francisco nonprofit that supports nuclear nonproliferation. “ICBMs play no useful purpose, are a waste of money, and we would be safer without them. It would be better to take that $100 billion and burn it in a barrel.”

Biden would not have accepted such a line of thought if he was President. When he took office in January 2021, his team began the Nuclear Posture Review, a top-to-bottom examination that every new Administration undertakes, and quickly discovered China’s plans to expand its nuclear arsenal. Beijing planned to triple its warheads up to 1000 by 2030. At the same time, it was building hundreds of new silos with long-range nuclear missile launch capabilities, possibly targeting the U.S. Then, three days after Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion of neighboring Ukraine, Putin declared in a televised meeting that he was putting his nuclear forces on a “special combat readiness,” in response to what he called “aggressive statements” by the U.S. and its European allies.

The Administration’s unclassified nuclear review has not been fully released to the public, but an Administration official says that in the wake of these developments the Biden team has signed off on the full rebuilding of the nuclear triad. Where Biden entertained possibly abandoning ICBMs during the 2020 campaign, the White House has endorsed the Air Force’s controversial and complicated plan to replace the Minutemen III missiles with the Sentinel. Biden supported an anti-first-use policy once, however his Administration retains the option of using it.

Winyun, who lives just a few steps from Launch Facility A05’s front porch, has not heard of any of this debate. Local farmers don’t seem to dwell on the silo either. The farmers just plow through it. The 394 people who attended the Air Force’s five town halls this spring didn’t inquire about the President’s plans or the view that their hometowns are seen as prospective sponges to absorb hydrogen bombs. Instead, questions from attendees largely revolved around the military’s land acquisition for construction, the claims processes for possible damages, and impacts on roads, schools, services, and other utilities.

Many locals see potential where others see logistical problems. Wyoming Business Council hailed the investment as one of the most significant in economic development. Cheyenne Chamber of Commerce set up a site for businesses in the state to register as approved suppliers of Northrop Grumman Corp. (the giant defense company that was awarded the contract for $13.3Billion) after Boeing Co. refused to submit a bid. Wyoming will receive the Sentinel after construction is complete.

Jim Young from Kimball, Neb. attended the townhalls. He isn’t worried about the construction plans or the new missiles themselves. Many residents in the region feel proud to have hosted the ICBMs. This is seen by some as a sign of patrioticism. Young (73 years old) is concerned that the Air Force has blocked a planned wind farm project that would have generated new employment and revenues for the local government. For an emergency landing, the military says it requires a zone of at least 2.2 miles around every silo. “How can a helicopter land on a hospital roof but here they need a two-mile radius?” he asks. “They probably think we’re just a bunch of hick farmers bitching about wind farms. But this is our land.”

The town of Kimball, Wyo. was once known by locals as Missile Center–USA. (Benjamin Rasmussen for TIME)

Kimball is a town in Wyoming. was once known by locals as Missile Center–USA.

Benjamin Rasmussen for TIME

Young was in highschool when the Air Force put the ICBMs into the ground in Nebraska’s southwestern corner. The majority of families in that area could trace their land back almost a century ago to the days when homesteading was still thriving. They signed contracts with the federal government to sell an acre or two of their land at market value for what was being called “national defense.” Then the new construction attracted laborers from all over the country, livening up the quiet little town. Young’s graduating class doubled to around 90 students, while new shops, restaurants, and honky-tonks began popping up along Highway 30 in downtown Kimball. “A lot of people here believe a similar boom will happen with these new missiles,” Young says.

These days, the activity is gone. Some workers settled in town with their families, but most didn’t. The use of missiles became part and parcel of everyday life. You’d pass them driving to the movies with a date, or running to the grocery store, or dropping your kid off at a friend’s house. Young’s Dodge truck passes fields full of beets. You can see the silos fenced off on the horizon. As a CB radio crackles at his knee, Young remembers how, years ago, trenches went through families’ wheat fields for miles. Kimball celebrated the Cold War’s frontline role back then. The town began calling itself Missile Center–USA. The town no longer uses the Missile Center-USA name, however, there is a renewed global arms race that could make it a popular choice. —With reporting by Leslie ­Dickstein and Anisha Kohli

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