What It’s Like to Man America's Lethal Underground Nuclear Arsenal

What It’s Like to Man America's Lethal Underground Nuclear Arsenal

Beneath several feet of Wyoming soil lies a bunker. Inside, two airmen sit — poised, waiting, ready. The world’s fate rests in their fingertips.

Beneath several feet of Wyoming soil lies a bunker. Inside, two airmen sit — poised, waiting, ready. The world’s fate rests in their fingertips. “When I am on alert, I am in charge of ten to fifteen Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles,” Capt. Victoria Fort, stationed at the Francis E. Warren Air Force Base in Cheyenne, Wyoming, told Scout Warrior in an exclusive special interview. These missiles’ nuclear payload can incinerate entire cities.

If the President ever orders a nuclear attack while she occupies this bunker, Fort must launch the missile. This is her responsibility. “We train every month for this. Every simulator run we take, we practice launching, that’s the one thing. We fail the evaluations if we don’t launch on time,” she said. “If it comes between an enemy attacking us and we are required to launch, I’m going to protect my country best I can.”

This bunker, what Fort calls the “castle,” is perhaps the epicenter of a military strategy known as nuclear deterrence. On Monday, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter spoke about it’s importance and necessity at the Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota. He pledged $108 billion to nuclear deterrence spending over the next five years and said, “America’s nuclear deterrence is the bedrock of our security, and the highest priority mission of the Department of Defense.”

Carter’s statements come on the heels of a recent report by the Wall Street Journal which said that President Barack Obama is considering a no-first-use policy regarding nuclear missiles. This action would query the Secretary’s words and could upend the geopolitical status quo. According to the New York Times, senior Pentagon officials have advised the President not to proceed with this potentially destabilizing act. They argue that a top-flight nuclear arsenal is necessary to deter opposition forces from employing such weapons against the United States.

Since the Cold War, the U.S. military has operated a land-sea-air nuclear triad. The airmen mentioned above control the land portion, the ICBM, from the Launch Control Center (LCC). From this subterranean fortress, they handle the LGM-30G Minuteman III, currently the only functional ICBM the United States military harbors.

(This first appeared in Scout Warrior here.) 

Responsibility for the 450 Minuteman missiles in existence falls to three different Air Force Bases — F.E. Warren, Minot, and Malmstorm Air Force Base in Montana. Each base operates 15 LCCs. Each LCC has two airmen standing by at all times to monitor their respective nuclear cache. The crews rotate, of course, but the castle is never empty. Shifts last 24 hours, or until the next crew arrives. “I’ve had alerts where I haven’t slept at all,” Capt. Fort said.

On days where she goes “on alert,” the 26-year-old pulls her new Ford Explorer into the base by 7:30am for her pre-departure briefing. From there, Fort and her fellow crew member are driven to an undisclosed location somewhere in the 9,600 square miles of F.E. Warren’s property. Upon arrival, they will descend into the earth, open the blast doors, cross the “catwalk,” and enter into the LCC’s main cabin. Fort said it could fit “a full-sized truck.”

It has a truck’s amenities, too — a single cot (called the “bed mod”), a toilet (but no shower), and a television set. “Everything’s bolted down,” said Fort, minus the two chairs in front of the console. They slide along rails but can lock into place. “We can actually strap into them in case we have to go to war,” she said. Should an attack happen, the castle’s shock absorbers will absorb the blast and prevent Fort and her fellow airman from harm.

While the castle is a far cry from the Captain’s home in Cheyenne — where she lives with her two cats, Squeeker and Tiny — Fort loves her role as a missileer commander. “Time flies in a weird way because you’re not seeing day or night,” she said.

Her senior role in the 90th Missile Wing is ten years in the making. Fort joined her high school’s junior Air Force Reserve Officers’ Training Corps and planned to enlist, until her mentor told her he’d “kick her butt” if she didn’t become an officer. So she attended Florida State University, joined their ROTC program, and then was commissioned in 2012.

After a short stint at Vandenburg Air Force Base in Lompoc, California, Fort spent the next three and a half years learning the ropes at Minot in North Dakota in the 91st Missile Wing. Her work impressed her superiors so much that Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James awarded her the Nuclear Deterrence Operations Service Medal in 2014 for her valor in “representing nuclear and missile operations.”

Fort has continued to excel since arriving at F.E. Warren in April. Every year, the Air Force pits each missile crew against one another to determine the top team. Fort and another female airman won this year’s competition and were crowned the number one crew in the Air Force.

The Florida native wasn’t always this confident, however. The reality of controlling up to 150 nuclear missiles initially strung her out. “I was really nervous,” she said. “When you finally go on alert, there are actually go weapons that you’re interacting with, so that was kind of hard to get over.” But she said she didn’t let it get to her. That is important, because the system depends on airmen like Fort for its efficacy and swift implementation. As Carter said, “While deterrence may seem like a simple concept, even an elegant concept, it rests on a complicated, human-intensive and technology-intensive system.”

To tackle this complex task, the Francis E. Warren Air Force has a simple mission: on time, every time, any time. Every airman at the base abides by this creed. Fort is no exception. “We’re the nation’s big stick, as Roosevelt said,” she said. “We’re not actually on the front lines, but other nations don’t mess with us because we have these weapons. … The big word for it is deterrence. We deter them.”

This first appeared in Scout Warrior here