When hundreds of land-based nuclear armed ballistic missiles were first lowered into underground cement silos spread across the vast cornfields here in 1970, the weapons were only intended to last a decade before a newer system came in.
Fifty years later, these missiles — called the Minuteman III — are still on alert, manned by members of the U.S. Air Force in teams of two who spend 24 hours straight below ground in front of analog terminals from the 1980s, decoding messages and running tests on the missiles’ systems to check if they could still launch if needed.
But it’s not the age of weapons or the decades-old technology that troubles their operators. It’s that the original manufacturers who supplied the gears, tubes and other materials to fix those systems are long gone.
Several years ago, the motor on one of the industrial-sized caged elevators that slowly descends 100 feet below ground to the launch control center broke, an airman with the base’s 791st Maintenance Squadron told McClatchy. A fix was not available for months.
Instead, maintainers resorted to rigging a pulley to lower supplies down for the crews, the airman said, who spoke on the condition they not be named.
“We’re severely constrained with spares,” the airman said. “The technology does its job. The challenge is sustaining it.”
To make repairs, airmen are often forced to take parts from another machine. Two of the airmen at Minot told McClatchy the facility’s missile guidance system often needs parts or attention because of constant wear and tear.
“You can only do that so many times until the system fails,” said Lt. Col. Steve Bonin, commander of the 91st Operations Support Squadron at Minot.
THE PRICE TO MODERNIZE
Next month Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Army Gen. Mark Milley and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin will seek billions to keep the 50-year-old land based missiles running while a debate begins on whether they should be replaced.
It’s a difficult ask: At the same time, the Pentagon is also in the middle of the most expensive nuclear modernization effort in its history.
All three legs of the nuclear triad — air, land and sea defenses launched from silos, overhead strategic bombers or nuclear submarines — are getting replaced with newer weapons systems, simultaneously.
The next-generation replacement bombers, missiles and submarines now under development have a price tag topping $400 billion and are expected to be a primary topic of questioning during hearings next month as lawmakers debate whether modernizing all three legs is necessary.
“In my humble opinion, we’re building more weapons than we need,” House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., said during a Center for Strategic and International Studies discussion in December. “We need to look at ways to have a robust deterrent in a more cost-effective manner. And that’s what we’re going to work towards.”
KANSAS CITY COMPLEX
Due to the high cost of developing brand-new weapons, the default for the military has often been keeping the existing nuclear missiles running for a few additional years.
All of the repair and life extension work for nuclear missiles or bombs is handled at just a few offsite locations across the U.S. All of the non-nuclear parts of any of the warheads rely on just one place, the Department of Energy’s Kansas City National Security Campus.
“There are no backup places,” said Lisa Gordon-Hagerty, the former head of the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration, which is responsible for maintaining the nation’s nuclear stockpile. That means there isn’t a way to quickly obtain spares in an emergency, she added.
The non-nuclear parts of the weapons are tightly controlled in Kansas City because of the high cost if a counterfeit part slips through.
Even for a simple part like wiring, a counterfeit that is set to degrade faster could effectively disable a missile without aircrews realizing the damage, Gordon-Hagerty said.
The non-nuclear components that are produced at the Kansas City facility include items as basic as wiring or bolts, and as complex as the weapon’s firing system. They make up more than 80 percent of each weapon, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office.
As the missiles have aged, they’ve needed more work.
Last year, the GAO reported that the Kansas site would need to expand to meet the levels of repair now needed.
“The workload of the Kansas City site has increased and is currently at the highest level since the end of the Cold War,” the GAO said.
The agency cautioned that supply chain issues and a lack of floor space at the Kansas City site could hamper future plans to swap out parts and extend the life of the weapons.
Navy Adm. Charles Richard, the head of U.S. Strategic Command, wonders how many life extensions are left for the missiles.
“When I say heroics, I’m talking about where people are doing some very innovative things to reverse engineer and creatively replace parts and things like that,” Richards said.
He added that another service life extension is “certainly past the point of being cost-effective and approaching the point where you can’t do it at all.”
To prepare for upcoming congressional hearings on the defense budget, Milley went to Minot.
He climbed inside a B-52 Stratofortress that’s been flying since 1960 to talk to the crew and ask them what upgrades would help their missions. The UH-1N Huey that carried him to the missile silo has been in service since 1969. The wall deep underground at the launch control center that he signed as he departed was built around 1962.
“We’re moving into a period where the engineering lifespan of these systems is nearing its end,” Milley said. ”Nuclear deterrence, strategic deterrence, I think, has been effective in preventing great power war for seven decades, since the end of World War II. And until, unless we have something better come along, I think we need to update and modernize the one we have.”
As he departed the launch facility, Milley took a marker to write a message to the missileers. It’s a place near the exit where crews who have completed their tours and visiting defense leaders have also scribbled notes.
“Every day there is no nuke war you won,” Milley wrote.