Are We on the Verge of a Nuclear Breakdown?
For two and a half years, Air Force Capt. Blake Sellers donned a green U.S. Air Force flight suit, and motored across barren Wyoming grassland in sun, rain, sleet or blizzard, for 24-hour shifts, 60 feet below ground, in a fluorescent-lit buried capsule. Sellers was one of the roughly 600 officers, known as missileers, who are responsible for launching America’s 450 nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles. Each ICBM in the arsenal is capable of rocketing to the other side of the planet in 30 minutes or less and incinerating 65 square miles. Missileers are the human beings who have agreed to render whole cities — like Moscow, Tehran or Pyongyang, but really anywhere there is civilization— into, in the jargon of the base, smokin’ holes. Air Force Academy graduates like Sellers tend to dream of flying jets. In a corps full of eagles, he and his compatriots are the moles.
The route down America’s underground WMD silos begins with five months of training at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. There, the first requirement is signing a document committing to end the world if so ordered by the president. But what if, somewhere along the way, a missileer has a change of heart and decides he or she is not OK incinerating millions of civilians? “They say, ‘Well that’s OK, but we are going to separate you from the Air Force and you will pay back everything we paid for your education,'” Sellers recalls. “In the Air Force Academy, that’s $300,000. So you will be unemployed and owe $300,000.”
During training at Vandenberg, pairs of missileers enter a simulated launch capsule, with swivel chairs facing a console — four black-and-green screens, and two keyboards — that resembles Matthew Broderick’s workstation in the 1983 movie, WarGames. The pairs open a small metal box with two coded padlocks, and the senior member of the crew removes The Key. A grid on one of the screens displays the status of 50 nuclear missiles, 10 of which are under his or her control. The senior commander and the deputy read and repeat a series of steps and codes from various manuals. When the word “critical” flashes in small red letters on a screen, the senior missileer inserts The Key.
Together they turn three switches at once. A missile grid on the screen blinks and in each box the green letters “EN” for “enabled,” changes to “LIP,” for “Launch in Progress.” Minutes later, the weapons enter the upper atmosphere. There is no turning back.
After a few months of key launch exercises, the nation’s missileers have participated in so many theoretical Armageddons, they know the drill by heart. “Of course you become utterly desensitized to tending nuclear weapons,” one former missileer says. “The first time it’s like, ‘Whoa!’ After about ten alerts? ‘Eh.'” That’s when they are ready to be shipped off to the launch sites.