November 7, 2009

Weapons of mass destruction

Our neighbor Lorraine Collins always has an interesting perspective on a wide range of topics. Here's another that should catch your interest -- and perhaps spur a comment or two. Her commentaries appear regularly in the Black Hills Pioneer, and she graciously allows us to share them with on-line readers here.

A small item in the news caught my eye the other day. It reported that Malmstrom Air Force Base in Great Falls, Mont. had “completed deactivation of 50 missile launch facilities.” Clearing 50 silos of intercontinental ballistic missiles means that the United States now has only 450 nuclear-tipped missiles in silos.

I don’t think about ICBMs much any more, and I don’t know who they’re all aimed at these days since the Cold War ended and the Soviet Union no longer exists. In fact, I’m sort of surprised that we still have 450 of them, some with multiple warheads, ready to be fired at a moment’s notice. There are still officers in underground bunkers not too far away from us, ready to push the button if they have to.

I remember the years that Minuteman missiles were being deployed around Ellsworth Air Force Base in Rapid City in the 1960s. Out on the prairie, silos were dug into ranch lands, command facilities were built here and there, and we became used to seeing USAF vehicles or helicopters on the landscape. It was not unusual to see a very long trailer, presumably carrying a Minuteman missile, escorted by armored vehicles, driving down some lonesome road. The deployment of missiles hereabouts resulted in an economic boom and I think we all appreciated that, even while pondering the seriousness of being the site of weapons that could destroy the world.

The idea of having hundreds of ICBMs in hardened silos at many sites in Montana, North and South Dakota and Wyoming was that if the Soviet Union attacked us, we could instantly attack them. This was the Cold War strategy called Mutual Assured Destruction, or MAD, which some thought it was.

There are no missile sites left in our neighborhood now, except for the one out by Cactus Flats, east of Rapid City. It’s a National Historic Site that displays a control center and a silo holding a disarmed Minuteman missile as a useful lesson in history.

The forces that threaten the peace and security of the United States are much different from those of 40 years ago and though we never got involved in World War III, we’ve certainly fought a lot of wars in the years since ICBMs were deployed. These weapons of mass destruction have not been of any use to us in Viet Nam, Grenada, Panama, Bosnia, Kuwait, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

But yet we still have those 450 weapons aimed at somebody. They are just one part of our enormous military budget which is the largest in the world, larger than the military budgets of the next dozen or more major countries combined. Maybe one reason for our huge military budget is that various states have military installations or defense contractors they want to support.

For instance, our South Dakota Senators are adamant about funding the “next generation bomber” even though the Secretary of Defense says we don’t need that kind of plane any more. At more than $2 billion apiece, high tech new bombers are so expensive they use up a lot of money that could be spent on other weapons systems. So maybe Congress should rethink its approach to defense spending.

Back in the 1960’s when a Minuteman missile site north of Belle Fourche had a sort of open house for the public, I visited the underground command bunker along with my kids and mother-in-law. We went down in the elevator, passed through a huge metal door and entered the bunker where two young officers explained how they would fire any or all of the 10 nuclear weapons under their command if ordered to do so. It was impressive and terrifying. When we came back up to the twilit prairie my mother-in-law said, “Well, I wish we could spend the money on something we want.” I still feel the same way.

Lorraine Collins is a writer who lives in Spearfish. She can be contacted at

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