Cold War Memories: A War No One Could Win - Archaeology Magazine Archive

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A War No One Could Win "Cold War Memories"
May 3, 2000

"The Minuteman was one of the most significant strategic weapons in U.S. history. With a turn of the key, the missile could deliver its nuclear weapon to a Soviet target in 30 minutes or less. It was a weapon for which there was virtually no defense--for a war no one could win." That's how Tim J. Pavek, a missile engineer with the 28th Civil Engineering Squadron and now Minuteman II Deactivation Program Manager at Ellsworth AFB, described the ICBM in testimony before the Subcommittee on National Parks and Public Lands, House Committee on Resources, on September 14, 1999. Here is what you would have done if you were one of the officers on duty in a subterranean launch control center (LCC) if that war had actually taken place:

An alarm sounds in your LCC followed by a coded launch command. Incoming land-based missiles have been detected by infra-red sensors on satellites and submarine-based missiles have been picked up on coastal radar. In the minutes before the warheads explode, the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) has informed the president, the only person who can authorize a retaliatory strike by the Minuteman missile system. You and your fellow officer in the control center buried 31 feet beneath the prairie verify the launch command, then take two keys from the Emergency War Order safe. At your station, you call out an alphanumeric countdown and your subordinate repeats each count. Then you both turn the keys, which must be turned simultaneously (the officers' stations are 12 feet apart, a fail safe so that one person alone cannot launch the missiles). An outside vote (another fail safe) from a second LCC or an airborne command center completes the launch sequence. Within five minutes of the alarm, the 80-ton reinforced concrete doors atop the silos are blown back by explosive gas generators, and the ten missiles you control begin their 30-minute flight over the top of the globe to targets a hemisphere away.


© 2000 by the Archaeological Institute of America