Today, the United States has four hundred and forty Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles, sitting in underground silos scattered across the plains of Colorado, Nebraska, Wyoming, Montana, and North Dakota. The missiles are kept on alert, at all times, ready to take off within two minutes, as a means of escaping a surprise attack. Each missile carries a nuclear warhead that may be as much as thirty times more powerful than the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. The Minuteman III was first deployed in 1970 and scheduled for retirement in the early nineteen-eighties. The age of the weapon system is beginning to show. Most of the launch complexes were built during the Kennedy Administration, to house an earlier version of the Minuteman, and some of the complexes are prone to flooding. The command centers feel like a time capsule of late-twentieth-century technology. During a recent visit to a decommissioned Minuteman site, I was curious to see the big computer still used to receive Emergency Action Messages—launch orders from the President—via landline. The computer is an I.B.M. Series/1, a state-of-the-art machine in 1976, when it was introduced. “Replacement parts for the system are difficult to find because they are now obsolete,” a report by the Government Accountability Office said last May, with some understatement, about a computer that relies on eight-inch floppy disks. You can buy a smartphone with about a thousand times the memory....Read Schlosser's full piece here.
The Minuteman III is a relic of the Cold War not only in design but also in its strategic purpose. The locations of the silos, chosen more than half a century ago, make the missile useful only for striking targets inside Russia. The silos aren’t hardened enough to survive a nuclear detonation, and their coördinates are well known, so the Minuteman III is extremely vulnerable to attack. The President would be under great pressure, at the outset of a war with Russia, to “use them or lose them.” The missiles now have two principal roles in America’s nuclear-war plans: they can be launched as part of a first strike, or they can be launched when early-warning satellites have determined that Russian warheads are heading toward the United States. After being launched, a Minuteman III cannot be remotely disabled, disarmed, or called back. From the very beginning of the Minuteman program, the Air Force has successfully fought against adding a command-destruct mechanism, fearing that an adversary might somehow gain control of it and destroy all the missiles mid-flight. “Once they’re gone, they’re gone,” an Air Force officer told “60 Minutes” a few years ago.