Swords to Plowshares

“Cannot swords be turned to plowshares? Can we and all nations not live in peace? In our obsession with antagonisms of the moment, we often forget how much unites all the members of humanity…” – Ronald Reagan addressing the 42nd Session of the United Nations General Assembly


A 321st Strategic Missile Wing Minuteman missile silo is demolished on October 6, 1999 in accordance to the START treaty (U.S. Air Force Photo)

The “Swords into plowshares” concept has often found itself wrapped into dismantling Cold War weaponry, specifically nuclear weapons. An important part of the American Intercontinental Ballistic Missile story involves the protests by activists nearly from the very start of missile deployment. Many “Doves” sought ways to eliminate or at least reduce the number of nuclear weapons in an effort to avert world catastrophe. “Hawks” in contrast often considered nuclear weapons as a basis of peace in an unstable world. One might compare and contrast President Ronald Reagan’s early tough rhetoric against the “Evil Empire” of the Soviet Union and then later work to eliminate nuclear weapons, especially as he met with Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev in Reykjavik, Iceland in 1986. Times change, and as history proved President Reagan, people change too.


President Reagan and Soviet Primer Gorbachev chat in the Oval Office (National Archives Photo)

As this site supervisor listened to 20th Air Force Commander, Major General Fred Stoss, explain the implications of rising international tension regarding ex-Cold War adversaries at a conference in Cheyenne, Wyoming, it was an interesting occurrence of history possibly repeating itself. For many years there were notable issues in the American “nuclear enterprise” as many scholars call it; nuclear weapons were accidentally attached to a bomber and flown cross-country without knowledge, there were also cheating scandals and what many considered a deterioration of morale among Air Force personnel assigned to ICBMs. Today, efforts are underway to replace venerable missile field support helicopters and even the nearly 50 year old (although greatly updated and refurbished) Minuteman III missile that once made eastern North Dakota its home. In the Air Force community there is a push for pride to be a nuclear operator as leadership attempts to refocus on the importance of the nuclear deterrent force that took a back seat during the War on Terror.



Harvesting wheat in North Dakota

In a field near Velva, North Dakota meanwhile, a missile still awaits beneath a 110 ton blast door. Farmers tread lightly near these silos, as cameras and sensors detect intruders near the fences promising a quick response by very intimidating, buzz-cut Security Forces armed to defend these sites. Often visitors to Oscar-Zero are astounded to know missiles are still in operation, with dedicated officers and airmen still travel to control sites and silos. Many also still question the value of these sites. According to “Atomic Audit: The costs and consequences of U.S. nuclear weapons since 1940”, $5.5 trillion had been spent on the American nuclear arsenal up to 1996 (and the amount is represented in constant 1996 dollars).


Minuteman III missiles remain on alert, such as this site on the plains of Montana (U.S. Air Force Photo)

Sometimes controversial, the effort at Oscar-Zero is to portray both sides of the nuclear weapons debate, as both are intertwined with North Dakota history. Often we can point to President Reagan, our namesake, as an individual passionate in one regard to defend America who was also fully aware of the consequences of nuclear weapons and sought out ways to eliminate them. Our site is a relic of the Cold War, but the Minuteman missile system remains in service. Some might say the “sword” that was Oscar-Zero has been transformed into the “plowshare” of remembrance and learning. The history is told but also there is an effort to provide education for our nation’s future. Another Cold War president put it this way:

“For in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s futures. And we are all mortal.”

– John F. Kennedy


The More things change…

April 8, 1968, fifty-years ago today, found Grand Forks in the midst of an average spring day. The high would reach 39 degrees while a trace of rain was recorded in the weather log. Today there is a slight chance of snow instead of rain.

On the nation’s billboard Top for April 13, 1968 was Otis Redding’s “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” (notable as the performer died the previous year) and “Honey” by Bobby Goldsboro. Other hits included performances from The Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel, Aretha Franklin and Manfred Mann. This month in 2018 finds Zedd, Maren Morris & Grey at the top spot followed by Bruno Mars, Bebe Rexha & Florida Georgia Line.

April 1968, and the entire year 1968 would be very notable for history. The Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis and the Vietnam War raged on, especially around a hamlet named Kne Sanh near the 17th Parallel in the then-named South Vietnam. Soviet troops stationed in Hungary prepare to invade the nation of Czechoslovakia (today’s Czech Republic and Slovakia) due to the “Prague Spring” uprising. America progressed with its goal of landing on the moon by launching an unmanned Apollo 6 atop the mighty Saturn V rocket.

Back in North Dakota during April 1968, two officers assigned to the United States Air Force sit 50 feet below ground protected by a 6-ton blast door, duly noting maintenance events in logbooks and never straying too far from their missile status console.

Some things change, some things don’t.

Above, we see a missileer crew from the 1960s at an undetermined base dressed in white coveralls (the initial standard uniform for missileers since the early days of the Strategic Air Command ICBM mission) – Image Courtesy of Association of Air Force Missileers.

Next to this photo finds a current crew within a redesigned capsule at Malmstrom AFB in Montana wearing flight suits. (Image Courtesy U.S. Air Force)

Their roles are the same, keeping an eye on their flight of ten Minuteman missiles within their “Flight”. Five flights in a squadron, typically three to four squadrons within a wing. On April 8, 2018 there are a little less than 40 capsules left in Air Force service staffed by 80 men and women around the clock. On April 8, 1968 there were a little less than 100 capsules staffed by 200 male crew members in Minuteman across the Northern Plains of the United States. There were also 54 Titan-II missile sites staffed by around 270 personnel.

Last month, March 2018, all of the nation’s remaining Minuteman capsules were staffed by female crews for a time in honor of women’s history.

Some things have changed. The mission really hasn’t. Minuteman was designed as a reliable weapons system deployed not to be used but rather serve as a deterrent. Some may point out ironies in the fact that while missileers staffed sites in April 1968 to deter war, B-52 bombers pounded North Vietnamese Army positions around Kne Sanh. Others will point out that a cataclysmic nuclear conflict had not occurred.

Today on a cold spring day in North Dakota, crews continue to sit behind blast doors and await the call they hope never to come. Another site in eastern North Dakota, deactivated for 21 years instead brings visitors into the capsule where the door no longer closes and electronics have long since been turned off. An interesting thing, an historical site dedicated to a history that is still ongoing.

There are no fossils at Oscar-Zero to look upon, no portraits of important Old West figures, nor impressive steam-powered wheat threshers. Instead two oddly designed keys dangle near their insertion points. Once locked within a red box, the keys no longer have any use. Three hours west of Oscar-Zero meanwhile, keys still exist for an unthinkable mission, safely contained behind a small safe door.

One hopes they may never be inserted and turned after those crews received proper, verified launch orders.

That the launch keys were never used, something all of us hope remains the same.

Little Boxes

If one had worked with the National Park Service at Minuteman Missile National Historic Site near Kadoka, South Dakota before 2013 – they would become very familiar with “The Groobers” song “Little Boxes”

“Little boxes in Wyoming, little boxes in Dakota, little boxes in Montana, little boxes all the same…there are green ones, and green ones, and green ones, and green ones, and they’re all made out of ticky-tacky and they all look just the same”

This song would play at the end of each orientation video. A parody Malvina Reynold’s 1962 song “Little Boxes”, in turn a satire of suburban America, the Groober’s version relates to the Launch Control Centers and the Air Force’s fondness for sea-foam green paint within the structures.


Source: National Park Service

With 100 Launch Control Facilities and 1,000 Launch Facilities (silos) built between 1961 and 1967, Minuteman came to represent the bulk of the American ICBM arsenal.

As seen in the image on the left, with the red representing current Minuteman wings and the black showing the now deactivated areas, the role of the ICBM in Great Plains history is profound.

Yet Minuteman was only a part of the story. While the Peacekeeper missile would be housed within Minuteman silos by the late 1980s, the Atlas and Titan missile complexes that came before were found in a number of other regions in the United States.


Source: Wikimedia

The Atlas missile represented a massive investment in unproven technology. While Atlas-D missiles were stored horizontally in “coffins”, above-ground structures, Atlas-Es were based in buried coffin like structures and Atlas-Fs were positioned in 180 foot deep silos that required 24/7 construction efforts due to the urgency of the Cold War in the 1960-1962 time frame. From upstate New York to Texas, the deserts of southeast New Mexico to the plains of Nebraska, the role of the Atlas within SAC’s ICBM force was quite short. With the last missiles going “on alert” in late 1962, all were retired by the end of April 1965.


Strategic Air Command Missile History

Titan missiles, the -I version activating in 1961, were built as a follow-on/backup to the Atlas. Titan-I facilities were massive structures linking three silos with a control center, antenna silos and a power generation room (all of this underground). Titan-Is were also deactivated by April 1965 while the Titan-II would activate in 1963 with its last model not being pulled from its silo until 1987. A huge missile with a huge warhead, Titan-II complexes were very large themselves.

So while Minuteman was being built across the Northern Plains and Missouri, dozens of other silos were already operational. Not tied into disarmament treaties, many Atlas and Titan silos sit empty and abandoned today. A handful have been turned into underground homes and while one Titan-II complex has been preserved as a museum, there are no Atlas sites designated as such today. A pity considering their pioneering task of American ICBM deployment.

Those “Little Boxes” were found throughout the American West, with a few still “On Alert”. The rest will quietly sit out millennia, super-reinforced concrete structures that will last generations. Something to consider perhaps if you’re caught driving on the backroads of upstate New York, that a missile silo might lie just beyond the trees.

Minuteman II, Minuteman III, and MIRVs

The Minuteman missile system was a radical departure from regular Intercontinental Ballistic Missile development. While the Atlas and Titan missiles were very large, used liquid fuels and required a great deal of maintenance – Minuteman was about the opposite of all of those things.

Seen from left to right, Atlas, Titan-I, Titan-II and Minuteman

Minuteman-II would greatly improve on Minuteman-I by the mid-1960s by incorporating enhanced electronics, better accuracy, increased survivability against attack and a longer range. Minuteman-II would prove such a good weapons system that then Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara decided that only one wing (later a squadron) would be built expressly for Minuteman-II (Grand Forks) while many original Minuteman-I sites would merely be updated to accept the new model. The type would serve in the U.S. arsenal until 1995.

Development on the Minuteman system was not yet complete however as development of the MIRV (Multiple, Independent Reentry Vehicle) was ongoing and soon to be deployed atop the Minuteman III missile. Built upon the successful Minuteman II missile, aside from MIRV Minuteman III could boast even greater accuracy with an improved “third-stage” thrust system (providing finer control over a portion of the missile’s flight time) and a post third-stage “Bus” – a sort of a “fourth-stage” that carried the warheads and could fine-tune the trajectories of its MIRVs.

So what are MIRVs anyway? Before Minuteman III ICBMs could only deploy a single warhead to their targets. The U.S. Navy Polaris A-3 missile meanwhile deployed in 1964 could deliver MRVs (Note: not MIRVS). The MRV (this variant sometimes called “The Claw”) lacked the “independent” ability to maneuver warheads to specified targets and could “shotgun” a target area with multiple warheads.


A Minuteman III Re-entry shroud (right) with its “bus” or reentry system (left)

A MIRV could be guided independently, meaning in the Minuteman III the post-boost “bus” could maneuver in space and point each of its warheads towards specific targets miles a part. MIRVs would enhance the U.S. nuclear arsenal without the cost of building more ICBMs and could potentially overwhelm Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) measures to intercept individual warheads. The Soviet Union would later deploy MIRVs of its own, the SS-18 specifically was to be armed with such warheads and was thought to target Minuteman missile fields in the United States.

After a relatively short development time, Minuteman IIIs were deployed beginning in 1970, 1972 at Grand Forks AFB sites. With the Minuteman III still in service, it’s MIRV potential has been downgraded due to international treaties. Many (unknown if all) Minuteman IIIs possess a single nuclear warhead today. Today the U.S. Navy’s Trident II submarine force remain equipped with MIRVs, providing a portion of the American nuclear “triad”.



What was the Strategic Air Command? What did it have to do with Oscar Zero? Why isn’t it around anymore?

SAC, as it was commonly known, was created in 1946 to manage the U.S. Army Air Force’s strategic bombing capability. In the years of World War II, the idea of strategic bombing was to destroy an enemy’s war-making potential well beyond the front lines. It had been experimented with in World War I however by 1939 the day of the large bomber had arrived. Over Europe, American and British heavy bombers pounded German industrial targets day and night. By 1945, American B-29 bombers were laying waste to Japanese cities leading up to the atomic attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945.

With the advent of the atomic bomb, there was a realization that the days of 1000 bomber raids were effectively over when a single B-29 could destroy a city with one bomb.

SAC emerged in the years 1946 to 1948 as a weak component of the Air Force, as did its sister organizations as demobilization largely gutted experienced personnel from their ranks. By 1948 however SAC had moved from Virginia to Omaha, Nebraska and had a new commander in charge.

General Curtis Emerson LeMay was the personification of the “tough boss”. Generally smoking a cigar, disapproving ideas merely with stony silence and having no tolerance for incompetence or even innocent mistakes, many histories point to LeMay into crafting the command into an overwhelmingly powerful and professional fighting force.

Much has been said about the seemingly legendary aspects of the Strategic Air Command’s rise to prominence as America’s foremost military unit during the 1950s. Much has also been criticized about the command, especially by the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Air Force’s Tactical Air Command from complaints about taking much of the defense funding to investing in an “all or nothing” approach to nuclear war. By 1964 films such as “Dr. Strangelove” and “Fail-Safe” would poke fun and dramatize respectively the command’s overwhelming response in a nuclear conflict.

By the time the 321st Strategic Missile Wing activated in the mid-1960s, SAC had a mixed reputation ranging from being the guardians of freedom to an organization effectively tasked with bringing about Armageddon. The command’s role was by nature controversial, however history denotes the professionalism of day-to-day operations by airmen and officers alike

Jumping ahead to June 1992, when the Strategic Air Command ceased to exist as an organization, it is interesting to note the command was active essentially throughout the entire Cold War. When one speaks to its veterans they consider General Curtis LeMay a commander who knew how to straighten things out and was an effective boss who did not put up with nonsense. For the most part they are very proud of their service with SAC with its very strict rules and ever present tension. It has been said that they prepared for war daily so they would not have to go for real. In the end historians have found SAC’s lifespan full of ups and downs but with a proud legacy that lasts in the voices of its veterans.

25 Years (or so) after the Cold War


The signs are fewer now, even by the 1990s the stark yellow squares that stood solemnly beside entrances to many government buildings were often no more. A strange thing to younger generations, used to perhaps the blue “Hurricane Evacuation” signs near the coasts and “Emergency Snow Route” signs in the north. The origins of the often cited “shelter mania” emerged from President Kennedy’s speech in September 1961 calling on increased spending on defense along with civil defense in the wake of Soviet aggression and the construction of the Berlin Wall earlier that year.

At the risk of sounding cliche, it was perhaps “the sign of the times” as numerous locations were picked nationwide that could provide some amount of radiation protection to those sheltering inside from fallout. This was dangerously radioactive dust, ash and debris sucked into the atmosphere after a nuclear blast that the world painfully became aware of after the 1954 “Castle Bravo” nuclear test where many pacific islanders were exposed to the radioactive ash that blew downwind of the explosion. A fallout shelter was not however a “blast” shelter, it would not protect you (at least well) from a nearby burst of a nuclear weapon.

The notion of nuclear attack was evident in everyday lives as neighbors constructed bomb shelters in their backyards. Television shows discussed or at times even ridiculed the idea as evident in a few episodes of “The Twilight Zone”. Schoolchildren practiced huddling against interior school walls with their hands around the back of their necks to protect against flying debris. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, many Americans came face to face with the stark reality of the nuclear age.

Barely 10 years after “shelter mania” the world had changed dramatically. Fallout shelters once quickly stocked with water, food and sanitation supplies were nearly forgotten about in the public mind. Some towns even attempted to sell off the spoiling supplies inside, in one instance in Lincoln, Nebraska the survival rations were auctioned off to a hog farmer for his animals to eat.

In another 10 years there would be something of another war scare. Googling “Able-Archer 83”, “Euromissile Crisis” and “WarGames” (America’s Hollywood introduction to a Minuteman Launch Control Center)  would offer more information, and some fallout shelters reemerged in the public eye. The enthusiasm for building them possessed in 1961 did not return however.

Perestroika, the INF Treaty, START, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the end of Communism in Eastern Europe marked many points where it could be said “When the Cold War ended”. Within the Strategic Air Command the pulling Minuteman II missiles off full alert and nuclear-armed bombers off 15-minute ground alert worldwide surely marked a watershed moment. On December 25, 1991, the Soviet flag lowered from the Kremlin for the last time. Perhaps it was here that the Cold War officially ended.

In 2017 sites like Oscar-Zero stand as museums, no longer staffed by Air Force personnel with “the little brass keys”. Those obvious artifacts of the Cold War, like the Greenbrier Congressional evacuation location in West Virginia or Site SF-88, a Nike-missile air-defense site north of San Francisco undergo preservation and interpretation. On the other hand there are still a few designated fallout shelters nationwide that quietly assume different missions. Once so designated to save lives after an attack, they live on as often cold, bare concrete environments of dank basements. And yet other products of the Cold War, computer-networking technology, space communications, GPS, lasers have become everyday facets of life.

It can be interesting to stand back and consider how much the Cold War influenced American culture and technology, and how much of it lingers as testaments to earlier times when the world for the first time became vulnerable to a human-created cataclysm.

Maybe in one way its fitting for that 56 year old fallout shelter sign to finally wear out it’s fasteners and fall away to dissolve into rust (although not if eBay has something to say about it). On tours, guides often state how that the success of the Minuteman program was that it was never used. At the end of the Cold War, a fallout shelter and a Minuteman missile never put to purposes, to wait out their lifetimes with nothing happening and surely that was a victory of the Cold War – the fact that a catastrophic war never occurred.

LCC/LCF Comms via HF, UHF, SLFCS and many other acronyms.


Looks a bit confusing…

Communications via a military headquarters and its subordinate units has always been crucial in warfare from semaphore (communicating via flags) to homing pigeons, satellite communications to even using calling cards on a payphone to request artillery (this actually happened during the 1983 Greneda conflict). With missile sites, the importance is absolute and required a number of different strategies.

The Minuteman Launch Control Center received its Emergency War Order (EWO) messages via the Primary Alerting System (PAS). On a regular test basis, these would actually enter the site using plain telephone wire or the (HICS) Hardened Intersite Cabling System network . The Strategic Automated Command and Control System (SACCS – sorry, more acronyms) primarily utilized phone lines but due to the fact that phones would go down during a nuclear war, other plans were devised.

HF or High-Frequency radio antennas were set up at Minuteman sites as they became operational. Using Single-Side Band (SSB) radios, an antenna could fairly reliably communicate over some distance. “Receivers” built at the sites had an antenna that could be raised out of a protective enclosure, if that antenna was lost there were five more reloads. Only Squadron Command Posts or Alternate Command Posts had “Transmitters”.

VHF or Very-High Frequency was used to communicate with nearby maintenance and security teams in the area driving in vehicles. It had a backup ability to communicate with nearby Launch Control Centers and even the Wing Command Post back at Grand Forks AFB but was

UHF or Ultra-High Frequency was fairly long ranged but relied on a line-of-sight approach. This meant that airplanes could utilize this type of transmission fairly well at higher altitudes. Back on the ground at Oscar-Zero a hardened UHF antenna (that looks like a white cone) could communicate the the Airborne Command Post of the Strategic Air Command, code-named “Looking Glass”. This modified 707 airliner could take over the command role from Strategic Air Command Headquarters in Omaha, Nebraska in case that had been destroyed.

SLFCS or Survivable Low Frequency Communications System entered the picture a little later during the 1960s. It transmitted both on Very-Low Frequency or High Frequency channels from a few different sources, special radio towers once located in Nebraska and California or by airplane (like “Looking Glass” or later the Navy’s rough equivalent E-6 Mercury airplane). VLF transmits more slowly but is better protected against the Electro-Magnetic Pulse of detonating nuclear weapons that can bring power spikes to electronics, disabling or destroying them.

One of the last strategic improvements in communications seen at Oscar-Zero was the ICBM Super-High Frequency Satellite Terminal (ISST) which can be seen as a white dome sitting above the Launch Control Facility today.

After the 321st Missile Group stood down in 1997, there have been continuing communications improvements with the Minuteman system at other bases.

Lastly, Medium Frequency (MF) transmissions were only used at Wing VI (Grand Forks AFB) and a single updated squadron at Malmstrom AFB Montana. A transmission antenna extended out beyond the LCF in a field and allowed a backup ability to launch missiles miles away in the Launch Facilities should a breakdown in the HICS system occur (Hardened Intersite Cabling was the primary way to launch missiles and communicate with the silos if maintenance was ongoing).

Whew…we actually wrote this article for some collaborative education and encourage readers with a better knowledge of the Minuteman communications system to share their thoughts. Historical information pertaining to these systems are less frequent on the internet and we hope to construct a better understanding of the Minuteman communications system.