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Spy balloon controversy draws attention to western nuclear missile facilities

Experts believe the Chinese balloon downed over the Atlantic coast this month was snooping on U.S. missile defenses. Part of the landscape for a half-century, they are headed for a costly refresh in an era of rising global tensions.

Nuclear footprint The remains of a former Titan missile silo in the Ironwood National Forest in Arizona. Kelly Michals via Flickr

By Felicity Barringer

If the news of the Chinese spy balloon did nothing else, it was a reminder of the breadth and ubiquity of military nuclear facilities in rural areas of the western United States. During the Cold War, the West, with its vast empty spaces and abundant government-owned land — not to mention its over-the-North-Pole proximity to the Soviet Union — was the most obvious place to install hundreds of silos for intercontinental ballistic missiles.  

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We explore the issues, personalities, and trends that people are talking about around the West.

As The Washington Post reported last April,“About 400 of those missiles remain active and ready to launch at a few seconds notice in Montana, Wyoming, North Dakota, Colorado and Nebraska. They are located on bison preserves and Indian reservations. They sit across from a national forest, behind a rodeo grandstand, down the road from a one-room schoolhouse, and on dozens of private farms…” 

The Post reported that Montana’s Malmstrom Air Force Base was worth more than $375 million to the local economy in the counties around Great Falls. Lewiston, the county seat of nearby Fergus County, features an unusual monument: an upright deactivated Minuteman III Missile. It stands as a marker both of the region’s central role at the beginning of the nuclear age, and the activity now beginning to replace first-generation nuclear missiles with new missiles to be constructed — once called the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent; now called Sentinels.

It’s a task that will span decades. The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists noted in January that an estimated 1,370 nuclear warheads are deployed on ballistic missiles; and another 1,938 are in storage; several hundred of this group are in line to be retired in the next seven years. The Department of Energy has custody of the 1,536 or so warheads that are already retired.

Hopes for more international disarmament, particularly in the wake of the succession of treaties between Moscow and Washington that emerged in the latter part of the 20th century, have receded. The Russian President Vladimir Putin just made that clear by announcing he was withdrawing from  the New START treaty of 2010 and its limits on offensive missiles. The move gives new significance to Washington’s decision to upgrade the nuclear weapons deployed throughout the West.

The Air Force is replacing six-decade-old ICBMs with Sentinels in about 400 silos around the West, from Montana’s Malmstrom Air Force base to North Dakota’s Minot Air Force Base to the Warren Air Force Base, located in the area where the states of Wyoming, Colorado and Nebraka meet. 

The website Breaking Defense reported last month that “the scale of the silo conversion effort is something the service’s nuclear complex has not seen” in more than half a century. It quoted Lt. Gen. James Dawkins as saying, “We’re having to go to those sites that already have equipment and decommission them, dig some of it away, destroy some of the facilities, and then put new facilities where those old facilities were.” He mentioned that, at the fastest possible pace, the job would require converting one facility a week for nine years.

Last summer, Time magazine fleshed out Dawkins’ statement, reporting that “The dizzying, decades-long undertaking, now in its first stages, promises to be one of the most complicated and expensive in military history.” It not only involves retrieving the missiles that are underground in Wyoming, Montana, Nebraska, and Colorado, but “paying off as many as 9,800 landowners across 193,000 acres for the right to do so; then building and installing new equipment in its place.”

The Montana radio station KTVQ reported this month that 150 of these facilities are under the control of Malmstrom Air Force Base, which leads some to believe that’s why the Chinese spy balloon hovered over Montana.

The new Sentinel missile will be built by Northrop Grumman, which has test facilities in Promontory, Utah and expects its first test of the prototype missile later this year, with production of the new line of missiles beginning in three years, Breaking Defense reported.

Utah’s Hill Air Force Base has long been ground zero for maintaining and testing the existing complement of ICBMs. It is also central to the decommissioning and destruction of the older Minuteman III missiles and will be central to the development of the new Sentinels. Last summer the Air Force released a draft environmental impact statement on the new missile system’s development. The analysis of the Federation of American Scientists’ blog focused more on the options the Air Force discarded — like missiles in underground tunnels — than the impact of the chosen plan.

But as the Ogden, Utah Standard-Examiner reported last summer, the most significant impacts of this plan will be in the traditional tribal areas. Tribal cultural officials of the Northwestern Band of the Shoshone Nation and other groups with land on the Utah Test and Training range are concerned.

As the Standard-Examiner explained, there are 822 archaeological sites on the range where the old missiles will be destroyed. Archaeologists recently discovered the outline of 88 human footprints on the Utah range. They believe that these are 12,000 years old, according to an Air Force news account. 

The longevity of the nuclear missile program in the West means that many of the latest developments echo the earlier history of the archipelago of missile silos. In December 1975, the Centers for Disease Control reported that “Based on the results of both medical and environmental evaluations, a potentially toxic condition is judged to exist in the missile silos from occupational exposures to lead, cadmium, and iron oxide fumes. on the health impact of working in nuclear silos in Minot, North Dakota.”

National Park Service

That report may have nothing to do with the latest bad health news: nine military officers who spent decades in the silos near Malmstrom Air Force Base have been diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma. The Associated Press reported that “indications” suggest the disease may be linked to these “missileers’” underground service in or near the silos.

The report, based on the AP dispatch, described the men’s work, explaining how  “Missileers ride caged elevators deep underground into a small operations bunker encased in a thick wall of concrete and steel. They remain there sometimes for days, ready to turn the launch keys if ordered to by the president.” One of the officers has died.

But health concerns, like the worries about Native artifacts in Utah, have not yet been an impediment to the planned makeover of the country’s land-based nuclear arsenal in the West, with the old missiles being gradually destroyed and replaced by the new. The Washington Post reported that in Fergus County, Montana, Air Force officials have told local government leaders to expect 31 new communication towers, 1200 miles of high-speed underground wiring and a workforce expansion of more than 2,500 employees, increasing the local population 50 percent.

Whatever the national sentiment about the future of American nuclear weapons, the arsenal has long been, and will continue to be, woven into the sinews of the rural West.


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Staff and Contributors

Felicity Barringer

Lead writer

A national environmental correspondent during the last decade of her 28 years at The New York Times, Felicity provided an in-depth look at the adoption of AB 32, California’s landmark climate-change bill after covering state’s carbon reduction policies. MORE »

Geoff McGhee

Associate editor

Geoff McGhee specializes in interactive data visualization and multimedia storytelling. He is a veteran of the multimedia and infographics staffs at The New York Times, Le Monde and MORE »

Syler Peralta-Ramos

Editorial Assistant

Syler Peralta-Ramos is a member of the Stanford class of 2020. He has lived in Wilson, Wyoming his whole life and developed a keen interest in nature photography and conservation from a young age, inspired by the multitude of photographers that congregate in the Teton region as well as his parents who also share a love for photography.

‘& the West’ is published by the Bill Lane Center for the American West at Stanford University, which is dedicated to research, teaching, and journalism about the past, present, and future of the North American West.

Bruce E. Cain

Faculty Director

Kate Gibson

Program Manager

Past Contributors

Anna McNulty
Editorial Assistant, Fall 2021
Melina Walling
Editorial Assistant, Spring 2021
Benek Robertson
Editorial Assistant, Winter 2021
Maya Burke
Editorial Assistant, Fall 2020
Kate Selig
Editorial Assistant, Fall 2020

Francisco L. Nodarse
Editorial Assistant, Summer 2020
Devon R. Burger
Editorial Assistant, Winter 2020
Madison Pobis
Editorial Assistant, Fall 2019
Sierra Garcia
Editorial Assistant, Summer 2019

Danielle Nguyen
Editorial Assistant, Spring 2019
Carolyn P. Rice
Editorial Assistant, Winter 2019
Rebecca Nelson
Editorial Assistant, Fall 2018
Emily Wilder
Editorial Assistant, Summer 2018
Alessandro Hall
Editorial Assistant, Winter 2018 
Josh Lappen
Editorial Assistant, Fall 2017
Natasha Mmonatau
Editorial Assistant, Spring 2017
Alan Propp
Editorial Assistant, Winter 2017

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