ICBM Crews' Work Largely Unchanged Since Cold War

By Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 23, 2007

Air Force Capt. Elizabeth Buss will spend 72 hours this week -- including Thanksgiving -- sitting day and night in eight-hour shifts before a console and computer screens 65 feet underground in a blast-proof, launch-control capsule under a facility in a field miles from Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana, as the commander of a three-officer team monitoring 10 Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles.

An Air Force-trained chef, who lives with the team for those 72 hours in a space above the launch capsule, served turkey and all the trimmings to each officer at the end of their shifts.

Buss and her colleagues, along with others in more than 14 similar launch facilities in the area, monitor the more than 140 other ICBMs based at Malmstrom, awaiting an order that must come from President Bush to launch. Each missile carries a nuclear warhead that could strike anywhere within 35 minutes and deliver an explosive power 30 times more powerful than that of the Hiroshima bomb.

"Not a lot has changed in how we do business since the end of the Cold War," Buss's superior, Col. Sandra Finan, commander of the 341st Space Wing at Malmstrom, said in a recent interview.

That is why former senator Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) and other nuclear experts are trying anew to get the United States and Russia to extend warning times and reduce the number of weapons on alert. For Nunn, a longtime chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, the August episode in which a B-52 bomber crew unknowingly carried six cruise missiles with nuclear warheads over the country showed that accidents can happen, despite systems to prevent them.

"Perhaps we're foolproof," Nunn said recently, but the B-52 incident shows "human error can happen, and it can happen in communications or digital intervention." He added that Moscow's and Washington's nuclear ICBMs on alert represent a "posture more dangerous to us than any threat justifies."

One reason for keeping crews down in capsules, according to retired Air Force Gen. Eugene E. Habiger, a former head of the Strategic Command, "is that the natural state of an ICBM is on alert, with its nuclear warhead on and solid-fuel engines powered up. . . . The crews are needed to monitor the systems." De-alerting is often examined, he said, but no system has been developed.

"There are a lot of mission requirements we do down there," Buss said in a recent interview. These include checking the status of the missiles, testing secure communications, facing inspections and looking for potential security problems. Launching exercises take place on the days when the officers are back at Malmstrom.

Fewer missiles are on alert since the Cold War era, and they carry fewer warheads. The ICBMs no longer target Russian missile sites and cities. Instead, they are aimed at what Maj. Gen. Roger W. Burg calls "broad ocean area targeting." Burg is commander of the 20th Air Force, Air Force Space C0mmand.

However, Burg explained in a recent interview, many targets can be put into their guidance system within minutes, thanks to REACT, the Rapid Execution and Combat Targeting modification, which started to be installed in 1996. And a $6.7 billion modernization of the missiles is nearly 80 percent complete, Burg said. All motors on the missiles have been changed; better guidance packages and new command-and-control systems are in place.

Other recent changes are aimed at helping the "missileers" pass their time, since the old threat of a Russian first strike has essentially vanished. Each launch facility has not only a chef who prepares meals at all hours of the day or night, but also a television and a gym for workouts.

The National Security Agency for years objected to allowing an Internet connection in the launch facility for fear hackers could cause trouble. In August, however, that ban was lifted, and crew members pass much time online, mainly on studies. Buss, a Reserve Officer Training Corps graduate of Columbia University, is working on a master's degree.

A majority of those drawing missile-launch positions are recent college graduates who got their commissions by taking ROTC, Burg said. Because the four-year tour is stable, many officers take Air Force or other graduate courses in their spare time. Buss said it is "very common" that crew members use their time off for school work.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company