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Louis Comeger, A 44th Field Missile Maintenance Squadron maintenance technician climbs down a ladder into a Minuteman missile support facility on Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota, 1 April 1984, National Archives and Records Administration

Issue Brief

Minuteman Missile Program

The state of Colorado hosts over fifty active nuclear missile launch facilities along its northern border. Another hundred silos—all on hair-trigger alert—dot the landscape of adjacent counties in Wyoming and Nebraska. Dubbed “Minuteman” as much for its 60-second launch time as the famous colonial militias known for their swift deployment, each solid-fuel rocket holds three, independently-targeted guided warheads with a range of 7,000 miles and a “time to delivery,” or detonation, of less than 30 minutes.

First deployed in 1970, the Minuteman-III LGM-30G Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles (ICBM) were part of the third generation of the Minuteman program; they were the first multiple independently targetable reentry vehicle (MIRV) ICBM, for the purposes of serving the U.S.’s goal of “nuclear deterrence.” The original Minuteman missile was deployed to various underground, hardened silo sites across the U.S. in the 1950s. Varying significantly from its predecessor, the first iteration of the Minuteman carried a W-59 nuclear warhead with a 1 megaton payload, replaced stabilization fins with internal vernier thruster stabilization technology, and took advantage of newly developed solid propellant fuel. The lattermost upgrade was especially geopolitically important in that, unlike the liquid fueled Atlas and Titan missiles, the Minuteman was able to effectively cut down on time spent refueling after a launch command was given; this in turn led to a more reliable engine structure. To satisfy the growing need for a secure U.S. nuclear triad, the Air Force invested in the modernization of the Minuteman program, eventually leading to the Minuteman III missile with its unprecedented flight distance and MIRV technology.

Vector graphic of chevron-shaped insignia with a scroll-like banner beneath reading Impavide, or Fearless. The chevron's graphic is nearly bisected by a stylized red missile or blade on a navy blue background over a representation of the northern hemisphere of a globe. Six white stars, three on each side, appear near the top of the chevron.
Insignia of the 90th Missile Wing, 20th Air Force, Francis E. Warren AFB, Wyoming, Wikimedia Commons
The Minuteman III missiles are operated by the 90th Missile Wing, a component of the Twentieth Air Force stationed at Francis E. Warren Air Force Base in Cheyenne, Wyoming. The wing oversees 150 ICBMS in total on constant alert. The missiles are stored in dispersed underground structures called silos to prevent damage in the event of a nuclear attack. Also, more than 75 feet below the surface are those charged with launching the missiles called missileers. This special unit of the Air Force works on a rotating basis ready to activate the world’s most deadly weapons at a moment’s notice from the president.

Since the START I and II treaties, which were signed in early 1991 and 1993 respectively, the Air Force has significantly “deMIRVed” and downsized its missile arsenal. Under these international regulations, all other missile programs were officially abandoned in favor of the Minuteman III. In the early 1990s, the Air Force reacted to this shift by implementing the REACT (Rapid Execution and Combat Targeting) modernization project to ensure the long-term effectiveness and viability of the increasingly outdated Minuteman command and control consoles. Minuteman missiles must be maintained, by Congressional mandate, through at least 2030, although the total number of active missiles in the U.S. will reduce to 400 by 2018, from a peak of 1,000.

Maintenance of these aging missiles is no small feat. Stockpile stewardship of the Minuteman program—testing aging propulsion systems, replacing and upgrading components, and updating computer systems—has cost over $7 billion in the last decade alone. Nevertheless, a 2014 RAND Corporation report concluded that further maintenance of the Minuteman III system will cost a fraction of the development of a new nuclear missile program. It therefore appears Colorado will continue hosting nuclear missiles for decades to come. The 90th Missile Wing serves as one of three ongoing major missile operation headquarters in the nation and contributes to the management of the estimated 440 Minuteman III missiles that remain in the U.S. arsenal.

Minuteman missile fields have been regularly targeted for protests by peace activists. Many of these actions, along with missile locations, are documented in the book Nuclear Heartland, published by the organization Nukewatch. The 1988 edition of the book mapped and named the sites associated with the 1000 then-active land-based missiles stationed in the United States, while the 2015 edition renewed calls for nuclear abolition and described recent scandals in the U.S. Air Force Missileer Corps

Additionally, the Colorado Department of Public Health and the Environment has discovered and is monitoring polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB), tetrachloroethylene (PCE), and ​trichloroethylene (TCE) contamination at Minuteman silos from disintegrating electrical equipment, solvents, and paint.

Sources  

Heefner, Gretchen. The Missile Next Door: The Minuteman in the American Heartland. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012.

Heefner, Gretchen. "The Missile Next Door: The Minuteman in the American Heartland." PopMatters. September 27, 2012. Accessed August 3, 2020.

Missile Defense Project. "LGM-30 A/B Minuteman I." Missile Threat. June 15, 2018. Accessed August 3, 2020.

Missile Defense Project. "Minuteman III." Missile Threat. September 19, 2016. Accessed August 3, 2020.

Nukewatch. Nuclear Heartland. Madison, WI: Progressive Foundation, 1988 (first edition) and 2015 (second edition).
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