The Minuteman Missile National Historic Site near Wall, South Dakota preserves a terrifying relic of our Cold War with the Soviet Union (USSR). By the late 1960s, the United States had deployed more than 1,000 Minuteman I & II nuclear-tipped missiles in the Midwest and Upper Great Plains.
More than 150 nuclear missiles were deployed in South Dakota alone, often right in plain sight. Thousands of vehicles would drive by each day on Interstate 90 and not realize the deadly potential that lay in waiting just a half mile away. If someone ventured down the dirt road and approached the area, they might notice something a little different about the sign on the chain-link fence that surrounds the site: “Use of deadly force authorized.”
Otherwise the site looks fairly benign, which was part of the design. The U.S. Government wanted the sites to be difficult to detect by Soviet satellites and located far away from major population centers in case the sites were attacked.
Ready in its 80-foot deep silo, the 57-foot tall Minuteman II missile could be launched in less than 5 minutes because its solid fuel was stored within the missile, as opposed to its liquid fuel predecessors that had to be refueled before use. Today the missile is covered with a windowed platform so visitors can view the disarmed missile, but at the time there was a solid metal door covering the silo, and the door would blast open just before launch.
From the back you can see the thick, metal silo blast door, which could also be rolled back on its track for maintenance or loading. Once launched, the Minuteman II missile would reach a top speed of 15,000 miles per hour and could arrive at its target over 6,000 miles away in 30 minutes. The Minuteman II missile was topped with a 1.2 megaton hydrogen warhead. Two of these missiles contained more explosive power than all the bombs used during World War II including the atomic bombs dropped on Japan. If the missile exploded, everything within 1.5 miles of its target would be instantly vaporized. Everything within a 10-mile radius would be severely damaged and few people would survive. The site would become so radioactive that it would remain uninhabitable for centuries.
This maintenance hatch allowed technicians to gain entry to the missile silo without removing the blast door. First they had to open the small blue code box at the top of this photo and enter a special code. The hatch would then open, and they would climb down inside, where they had to enter additional codes. The whole process to enter the silo took over 10 minutes.
This UHF antenna was used to communicate with the missile. It was hardened to withstand a nuclear blast and launch the missile even if this site was attacked. The missile could be launched from both remote ground-based stations as well as from a jet that remained flying in the sky 24 hours a day.
The Improved Minuteman Physical Security System (IMPSS) was installed in 1989. It could detect any movement within the silo area. No alarm would sound, but within 15 minutes guards armed with machine guns would storm the area and immediately arrest anyone found on site. Many peace protesters were arrested over the years, but there have been no documented cases of foreign agents attempting to access a missile site.
This missile silo has been preserved, but all other missile silos in South Dakota have been destroyed as part of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) with the USSR to reduce the number of nuclear weapons. Yet the United States still has more than 5,000 nuclear warheads armed and ready, and Russia has even more. The newer Minuteman III missile has a maximum range of 12,000 miles and can be launched with only 1 minute notice. Today nine countries are believed to possess nukes. A new study estimates that more than a billion people could die of starvation should even a relatively small-scale nuclear war break out between India and Pakistan, for example. The Doomsday Clock, which shows how close humanity is to catastrophic destruction, is currently set at “5 minutes to midnight.” Let’s hope and pray the Doomsday Clock never strikes midnight.