Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Brief Encounter: The Nuclear Sponge

The corner where Wyoming, Nebraska, and Colorado meet hosts
150 Minuteman-III nuclear missiles, 50 each in the 319th, 320th,
and 321st Missile Squadrons of the USAF 90th Missile Wing, based
at Francis E. Warren AFB, just west of Cheyenne, WY. The missile
silos surround a 100-mile stretch of Rt. 80. (Sketch: Joe Scarry)


Speaking of the long drive from the Bay Area to Madeline Island . . . our route took us through one of three missile fields where intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) are based in the US.

There are three areas where US land-based nuclear missiles are based, each with about 150 missiles: Montana, South Dakota, and the corner where Wyoming, Nebraska, and Colorado meet. Our trip took us through the last of these.

The missiles are in silos underground, so there is not much to see as you speed along Rt. 80. One might even wonder if the people who live in the area even know they're there.

Luckily, we had the perfect audiobook for the drive: The Missile Next Door: The Minuteman in the American Heartland, by Gretchen Heefner. Heefner's book focuses on the first phase of nuclear missiles being brought to the region, beginning in the '60s. Anyone who wants to know about public engagement (and dis-engagement) around the issue of nuclear weapons will want to study this work carefully.

The Missile Next Door: The Minuteman in
the American Heartland
, by Gretchen Heefner
Here's one small facet of the story: the strategy behind installing the missiles in these locations is referred to as the "nuclear sponge." The thinking goes like this: in the event of all-out nuclear war, an adversary would need to expend a large part of its arsenal attempting to destroy the US missile silos. The vast areas of Montana, South Dakota, and Wyoming-Nebraska-Colorado containing 450 widely spaced missile silos would serve to "soak up" a big part of the nuclear force aimed at the US. Every incoming missile soaked up by the "sponge" would be one less headed for Chicago or San Francisco.

(A technical note: currently, those 450 Minuteman-III missiles are each topped with three W78 warheads. The explosive power of a single W78 is believed to be in the range of 335-350 kilotons, or something over 20 times the size of the atom bomb dropped on Hiroshima. That means the destructive power of Minuteman-III missiles spread across Montana, South Dakota, and Wyoming-Nebraska-Colorado is about 27,000 Hiroshimas.)

What did (and do) people in these plains states think about being part of the nuclear sponge? And about the 27,000-Hiroshima arsenal nestled amidst their fields and pastures? Heefner's book gives some answers; a lot more are needed.

My brief encounter with the Wyoming-Nebraska-Colorado nuclear sponge gave me a chance to consider some difficult questions. Is it possible that the missile fields will never experience an attack? and/or never have an accident? Perhaps everything's going to be okay? Perhaps I should just sit back and enjoy the scenery? . . . and/but . . . What if . . . ? What if the thing that everyone hopes (expects, assumes) won't really happen . . . really does happen?

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