‘Peace Through Deterrence’ in Underground Bunkers : Missileers Hold Keys to Launching Nuclear War
They call themselves Missileers, Cold War warriors who sit 80 feet underground in atomic bomb-proof bunkers, girded for World War III.
“Our mission is peace through deterrence,” said Lt. Michael Luft, 29. “I’m a missileer because I know I’m contributing to my nation’s security.”
The ties that bind are steadfast belief in the job and deep faith that, if the President of the United States orders the launch of MX and Minuteman III missiles, they will do it.
“Long before a possible crew member gets to (training), that person’s reliability has been judged,” Luft said. “That’s to ensure that individuals with only the highest amount of integrity actually man the missiles.”
The nation’s 50 MX missiles are deployed alongside Interstate 25, America’s nuclear highway, and buried under Wyoming’s high plains. The missiles are controlled by this air base in Cheyenne.
The 4,000 men and women assigned to the 90th Strategic Missile Wing, including 1,200 crack security police, maintain and guard the most powerful land-based ICBMs in America’s arsenal. They also oversee 150 Minuteman IIIs.
Officers are paired to staff 20 launch control sites around the clock. Each pair, a captain and a lieutenant, are responsible for 10 missiles, called a “flight.”
The crews work 24-hour shifts 80 feet underground in a capsule the size of a budget hotel room. It is suspended on shock absorbers. No one but the crew can open its blast-proof doors.
There is a bed, television set and toilet but the compartment is dominated by twin consoles. A bank of lights and buttons monitors the missiles’ “health” every 40 seconds. It is the missileers’ job to interpret the computer diagnosis.
“We are always busy monitoring the system,” Luft said. “We don’t just sit out there with our hands on the keys.”
The keys. The heart of the matter. On each console, 12 feet apart, is a keyhole. The keys that could initiate a launch are locked in a bright red box, along with secret papers necessary to send the warheads on their way. Each officer has a confidential combination to the box. It takes both to open it.
Additionally, crews must dial a 16-digit code to “enable” the missiles for launch. Only the President or his successors have those numbers.
The order to fire would come in a spoken code from the Strategic Air Command over two loudspeakers. The missileers practice the drill constantly.
Fail-safe procedures abound. Only after the code is correctly dialed can the officers use their keys. They must be inserted and turned simultaneously, while another crew in a different capsule also turns its two keys at the exact moment. The keyholes are spring-loaded, requiring constant key pressure to make them work.
Command Can Be Overridden
“Looking Glass,” the airborne command post that routinely checks the missiles’ peacetime functions, can override any launch command.
“We like redundancy in our business,” said Lt. Col. Gerald Perryman, 39, the missile wing’s assistant deputy commander for operations. “Every day the seals which cover the keyholes are examined to ensure they haven’t been tampered with.”
The missileers consider themselves an elite force. All those assigned to Warren AFB are men, although some female missile officers are based at Minuteman III installations elsewhere. The Air Force recently changed its policy to permit co-ed launch control crews.
Like Luft and Perryman, Capt. Steve Wagner, 30, trains to keep in rock-hard shape. With their short haircuts, lean physiques and starched dark-blue uniforms set off by white cravats, the missileers cut dashing figures.
“If an officer is not pilot- or navigator-qualified, or an engineer, he’s likely to be assigned to missile crew duty,” Perryman said. “Missile crewmen have a good track record for promotion in competition with air crew members.”
‘Here Comes Top Rocket’
In today’s military, where space and “Star Wars” are top priorities, that means, “Watch out, Top Gun, here comes Top Rocket.”
By the time young officers are assigned to a launch control capsule, they have been put through psychological tests to determine if they will obey orders to fire nuclear weapons.
Potential missile officers watch graphic films detailing the aftermath of the bombing of Hiroshima.
“We also get lectures about the effects of nuclear war,” Wagner said. “We have to sign a statement after we view the movies. After we practice our first key turn we have to sign another statement of personal reliability.”
Asked if he thought the missileers would survive incoming warheads, Lt. Aaron Wilkins said: “It’s hard to say what would happen in a degraded environment. Nobody wants that to happen.”
In a worst-case scenario, with World War III in progress and all his missiles launched, what would Wilkins do next?
“I don’t know. It hasn’t happened. I guess we would await further orders.”