The perspective of personnel at Malmstrom Air Force Base, located on the eastern edge of Great Falls, couldn't be more different. They are unapologetically obsessed with the deterrent weapons they have been charged to protect, to maintain and, if the proper authorization comes, to launch without hesitation.
To visit Malmstrom is to enter a world where even the smallest infractions—like a chef letting salad dressing expire in the barracks-like facilities that guard underground launch crews—are treated like high crimes. Regulations govern every aspect of the mission, from launch sequences to the way kitchens are cleaned in the 24-hour-alert facilities. "Perfection is the standard" is the official motto here; the unofficial motto is "Why? Because it's nukes!"
Last month, I spent four days at Malmstrom, touring facilities and talking to the Air Force personnel for a Seniorhelpline article on the state of the ICBM arsenal, scheduled to run next year. Along the way, I had some experiences that anywhere else in the nation would be surreal. Here in Great Falls, they are just business as usual.
1) Getting Jacked Up By Security
One curious thing about the nuclear alert facilities, operated by the 341st Missile Wing, is the way they hide in plain sight. Long, one-story buildings, visible from highways, double as disguised fortresses. Aside from the thin fence, the microwave tower and a sturdy gate, they could be confused for residences. A closer look at the access controls could indicate an agricultural facility or weather station—that is, until we approach one and spot the warning sign stating that use of deadly force is authorized to protect the grounds.
The building is actually a barracks called a Missile Alert Facility, where guards stay on five-day shifts to provide round-the-clock protection for the entrance to the capsule below. The missile control capsule sits 65 feet beneath this structure. The missiles under Malmstrom's responsibility are spread over 13,800 square miles of Montana landscape; it can take a maintenance crew 3 hours to drive from the base to far-flung silos or MAFs. These hubs are vital to the protection of the missiles and the operations of the launch crews.
The Air Force activated the first missile silo in 1963—I'm standing outside Alpha 1, the first MAF of America's first intercontinental nuclear missile base. When President John F. Kennedy responded to a nuclear-saber-rattling Nikita Khrushchev by warning that he had an "ace in the hole," he meant this place.
Just because the MAF appears innocuous does not mean it isn't well-guarded. I wanted to get a taste of what happens when an unauthorized person tries to gain unauthorized access to one of these MAFs, so I asked the security team to play out the scenario, with me as the bad guy. The result: I will get "jacked up," base slang for when security teams intercede to take physical control of a situation.
Our scenario outside Alpha 1's gate is pretty simple: My escort, Maj. Jim Horne, utters a prearranged duress code word to the security officer inside, as if I am forcing him to use the gate phone to gain access. The security team on site immediately scrambles, racing to a 7-foot-high locker to retrieve their M-4 rifles and M-9 pistols. No matter what we do or say, nothing can stop the drill now that it's begun. At Malmstrom, even more so than at other military environments, once the checklist has started, it must be finished.
They flank us quickly. A lanky 20-something appears from behind a building to our left, screaming into a bullhorn and balancing his M-4 so that the barrel points at me. At the same time, armed guards boil out of the buildings and walk steadily toward the gate, swinging up to open a gap in the fence. (Gates that swing out don't work so well in the high snow.) Horne, a misileer entrusted with evaluating other crews and pulling alerts inside the LCC, is deemed as big a threat as I am until he is under their control and can prove different. I count four rifles pointed our way—there may be more—when I'm commanded to turn around. They may not have bothered telling me to put my hands up; I beat them to it as soon as the weapons appear.
The bullhorn-equipped guy stays on the other side of the fence as a closer guard takes charge of telling me what to do. They tell me to lie down, and I glance at the gravel road under my boots. I should have stood in the soft, tall grass. Things could be much worse—this is Montana, and the worst time to get jacked up is when there is several feet of snow on the ground.
I lie down on the sharp rocks, spreading my legs a little wider when instructed. But I'm missing the drill from my prone vantage. I arc my back a little, turning my head to watch the security team ask the major what the hell is going on, since he's the one who uttered the duress word. The result is not sympathetic: One of the guards watching me screams, "Don't look at me, turn your head!" They are young but authoritative, and I wonder if they practice that tone or if it comes with the weapon. Either way, my cheek is now back on the gravel. Why did I want to do this?
Pressure on the back of my legs heralds the arrival of another guard. He identifies himself in a conversational, friendly voice. "Good to meet you," I interrupt, voice muffled by the ground. He continues without pause, telling me I've been detained by the Air Force, and solicits yes-and-no answers to make sure I understand. A quick pat-down empties my pockets—goodbye pen, pencil, notebook and digital recorder. The command comes to put my hands behind my back, and the metallic bite of handcuffs encircle my wrists. Then it's up to my knees, and two guys pull me to my feet. My shirt is now coated with dust and Bedazzled with embedded gravel bits.
Being on my feet is not the end; the guard abruptly hooks his arm around my neck and pushes me forward, arcing my back in an awkward bow. Ergonomically, I'm a puppet. I'll stay under tight control until the local authorities fetch me—since the guards are military law enforcement, they cannot arrest civilians. In the guard's terms, I've been neutralized. Even in this scenario, it's not a very neutral experience. But, hey, it's nukes.
2) Closing a Blast Door, Becoming One of the Best-Protected People on the Planet
Misileers, the Air Force personnel charged with launching nuclear missiles, spend their shifts buried 65 feet underground in a self-contained capsule called a Launch Control Center (LCC). Captains and lieutenants (and the occasional major) spend 24-hour shifts, or "pull alert," about eight times a month. Each capsule is hardwired with fist-size communication lines to monitor 50 missiles in remote silos, and is directly responsible for 10 missiles in nearby silos. Those communication lines are pressurized so maintenance crews and misileers can detect any accidental break or tampering. The pair in the LCC are also responsible for making sure the launch facility and their five silos are secure, coordinating visits from maintenance crews repairing and modernizing the missiles. "We just don't sit around in our pajamas waiting to push a big red button," says one misileer.
After we exchange a series of encrypted passwords with the security forces, filtered through handheld devices supplied to the Air Force by the National Security Agency, an elevator arrives to take us down to the capsule. The elevator door opens to a view of a 4.5-foot-thick concrete-and-steel blast door, set in place in 1964. The 8-ton blast door is the only way in. (There is a second last-ditch emergency exit, though, via a sand-filled tube. It's a long dig up for the crew below, especially since the tube ends well before it hits the surface, demanding the crew carve their way out through several feet of dirt.)
A series of clangs, reminiscent of a castle's portcullis rising, echo as the misileer inside unlatches the thick pins that seal the concrete-and-steel door. The massive door slowly swings open, and 24-year old Capt. Chad Dieterle, clinging to the metal handle, appears with a smile and a greeting. He gives us the standard briefing before we enter the capsule, reminding us of the "no hands" policy inside. We're not to touch anything.
Dieterle, as commander of the capsule, wields a lot of power—even superior officers ask permission before unhooking a door latch or flashlight—but he also shoulders the responsibility. Even a single seemingly minor error in the field (a "restrictable deviance" from well-drilled regulations) can result in him being disqualified for capsule duty until squadron evaluators clear him for duty with a set of training tests.
The LCC is shaped like a pill suspended by four pneumatic shock isolators capable of protecting the occupants and machinery from nearby nuclear blasts. Inside the capsule, banks of 1960s-era electronic cabinets line the wall. Very little has changed since the Kennedy administration, when this capsule was planted: digital screens have replaced paper teletype machines, servers upstairs grant capsule crews Internet access, and they even have Direct TV piped in for slow shifts. But some equipment is awfully old: Dieterle pulls a floppy disk from a green console, part of the antiquated but functional Strategic Automated Command and Control System. Upgrading a nuclear missile launch facility or silo is disruptive—a very bad word for an enterprise that aims for 100 percent readiness—and the staff is not eager to replace anything that still works.
Everything in the capsule has a backup. Commercial power lines connect to the capsule, but generators above and batteries below can keep the capsule operational during outages or global war. The air supply also has redundancies; in case of extended emergencies that sever the flow from the surface, the crew can make spare air with a hand-cranked device that separates oxygen from potassium superoxide. The number of cranks it'll take to keep the crew alive, and for how long, exists on a graph in one of the many black-faced ring binders kept in the capsule. There are rigid regulations and extensive checklists for everything.
It's time to close the capsule door. I grip the metal handle and pull—nothing happens at first, but then the door starts to swing silently on its two bulky hinges. "You'll want to go slowly and keep it from moving too fast," Dieterle says. "That's a lot of mass there." He glances at my feet, and I quickly pull my boot back as the door slides into place.
The door, like the capsule, does not rely on the newest equipment but mechanisms that have proven to be reliable. "A lot of times older equipment is easier to use than anything new," Dieterle says. In this case, the legacy gear is a hand-pumped hydraulic blast door. I close the pins by gripping a rubber handle and pumping, as if I was drawing water.
After a few pumps, a high-pitched squeal of air confirms that the miniscule gap in the door is being sealed. With a few more pumps, the reedy sound of seeping air stops. It's hard to put aside the feeling of being entombed. Even seasoned misileers admit to occasionally getting creeped out, especially if a power outage stops the white noise of the fans that recirculate the air. We're breathing the dry air familiar to airplane passengers, waiting for the singsong chimes that tell the crew of a change in status of the missiles, security systems or capsule. Phone calls come in, presenting authentication codes for maintainers and security personnel to enter the silo areas. And, of course, the pair wait for the dreaded Emergency Action Message that could start a launch of the most devastating weapon mankind has ever devised.
3) Hunting ICBM Silos in the Little Belt Mountains
The roads just outside Great Falls wind past streams teeming with trout, farmlands stocked with healthy Black Angus, and woods thick with mule deer and pronghorns. Heading south through the Little Belt Mountains, we're looking for another hallmark of the area, tucked in amid the well-groomed ranches and impressive cliff facades—nuclear missile silos.
For the cornerstone of America's deterrent posture, a nuclear missile silo is pretty humdrum—flat slab of concrete surrounded by a chain-link fence. There are no guards. Any citizen can walk up to one and be guilty only of trespassing on the private land where they are located. The silos here are dug into land leased from landowners, and are often located scant feet from highways, farmhouses and pastures. But most wouldn't give it a second look, perhaps thinking it is an unmanned sewage treatment or environmental monitoring facility. Even Air Force personnel with detailed maps of the silos' locations can have a hard time finding the spots—my late-afternoon visit to the Alpha-6 silo, accompanied by two Air Force officers, is marked by no less than three turnarounds on the two-lane highway that runs past Lewis and Clark National Forest.
We finally find the narrow, unpaved road that brings us to the fence line of the silo. The air is still and quiet, broken only by the sound of a dog barking from one of the houses located less than a mile away. It seems inconceivable that the Air Force would simply bury a nuclear missile out here, without a soul keeping an eye on it. There is a pole with a video camera mounted at the tip, part of a 2010 security upgrade. But it isn't even hooked up yet—the launch facilities farthest away from the base are getting upgrades first, before the unreasonably harsh winter weather descends on Montana.
That's right—these missiles have been in the ground for more than 50 years, without the same protection given to a typical convenience store.
That is not to say it's unprotected—far from it. The silo's first line of defense is its neighbors. One benefit of locating the silos on private lands is the additional protective mentality of the nearby landowners. Security officials make it a point to distribute phone numbers to use in case of suspicious activities at the silos.
The perimeter is not as porous as it looks. Anyone going over the fence—be it a terrorist or a rabbit—will trigger a radar security sensor that can detect new objects on the ground. A pointed pole paints a picture with radar waves and alerts security teams in the Missile Alert Facility and inside the capsule if any new object appears inside the fence line. Every radar alert gets a response from Security Response Teams, two-man units who creep up on the site, fully armed, to investigate. There is a lot of wildlife out here, and the temperature frequently drops to double digits below zero. Even when the cameras are installed, every alarm will be met with a security team. Remember: It's nukes.
The best defense is the silo itself. The concrete slab is inset with a vaguely pentagonal block carved into the concrete, with two white rails leading from it. This is the missile's way out of the silo. When the launch order is given, four explosive devices drive a piston that flings the 110-ton concrete-and-steel door from the top of the 90-foot silo. Everything here is redundant—one charge alone could move the door. With all four going, the hydraulic force will fling the massive door for dozens of feet, through the security fence and up the gentle hillside.
Another round hole, an access hatch, is the way in for maintenance crews tasked with repairing and modernizing the missiles and launch hardware. The team in the launch capsule, about 8 miles away, controls who gains access to the site. When a maintenance crew arrives, for example, they pass encrypted codes to the capsule crew, as well as to security personnel in the MAF. After the gate opens, a well-armed security team traveling with the maintainers has scant minutes to reach a phone at the silo to offer another encrypted code, again using encryption devices supplied by the NSA. Any mistake is met with a team of guards, ready to jack you up. (Mistakes can be as slight as a middle initial missing from the roster of expected visitors, or submitting the code incorrectly.)
After you leave a silo base, your mind plays tricks on you. You start thinking in acronyms, and you think you see nuclear infrastructure everywhere you look. Every fence becomes a national security perimeter, and every farmhouse an MAF; every tractor-trailer is hauling warheads. It's well-informed paranoia in Great Falls; every once in a while you'll be right.