North Dakota nuclear missile base struggles to recover from scandals

It’s a little difficult to say which is more alarming: The chronic degredation in general of the U.S. strategic nuclear forces or the fact that the ‘latest’ missles at Minot were built and designed in the 1960’s.


A bitter wind relentlessly whips across acres of frozen prairie at this remote base, where hundreds of airmen and women stay on alert around the clock to do the unthinkable: launch a nuclear attack.

This is the only installation in the nation that hosts both intercontinental ballistic missiles and B-52 bombers, two legs of the so-called nuclear triad with submarines. Yet it has been besieged by scandals and mishaps that have marred its historic role.

In August 2007, crews at Minot mistakenly loaded six cruise missiles carrying nuclear warheads onto a B-52 heavy bomber that flew to another base in Louisiana. The warheads were not properly guarded for 36 hours before anyone realized they were missing. Partly as a result, the secretary of the Air Force was forced to resign.

In the last two years, two commanders have been dismissed at Minot and one reprimanded after Pentagon brass lost confidence in their ability to lead. In addition, 19 officers were stripped of their authority to control and launch the nuclear-tipped missiles that sit in silos, and did not get it back until they completed additional training.

Now the vast base, close to the Canadian border, is struggling to recover.

A 60-page Pentagon report released last week detailed problems in the nuclear force since the Cold War ended two decades ago. The report singled out Minot as a “special case” that needed increased attention.

Maintaining the base’s 27 B-52 bombers and 150 Minuteman III missiles, which were built and designed in the 1960s, is a constant struggle.

Hydraulic seals leak, equipment breaks, transport vehicles fail more frequently, and aircraft are cycled into limited hangars for maintenance,” the Pentagon’s report said.

Morale has been cited as a persistent problem. A missileer typically wakes at dawn, attends briefings and drives with another missileer — sometimes for more than an hour — to a ranch house ringed by razor wire.

The airmen then take an elevator 70 feet down to a bus-sized steel capsule, called a launch-control center, that is supposed to withstand a nuclear blast on the surface. Responsible for 10 ICBMs that are miles away, the airmen spend 24 hours below ground, breathing recycled air.

Cleaning crews have begun scrubbing the 15 launch-control capsules — some of which hadn’t been thoroughly cleaned since they were built in 1962.

Winter weather can get so bad that missileers sometimes spend 48 hours, or even 72, in the capsule.

Full article: North Dakota nuclear missile base struggles to recover from scandals (LA Times)

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