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A rare look inside America's underground nuclear missile defense system

How nuclear missiles deter an attack
Posted at 2:01 PM, Mar 26, 2018

CHEYENNE, Wyoming -- On a windswept road, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, members of 90th Missile Wing from Francis E. Warren Air Force Base are stationed at one of the critical locales to our nation’s defense system. 

The only marker is a nondescript, square Air Force building tucked away in the farmlands of Wyoming.  It is the entryway to a place few of us get to see, and the people who control our most power weapons. This secret locale in Wyoming is home to some of the nation’s nuclear missiles, which are hidden deep underground.

First Lt. Ramon Ayoade, the combat crew commander with the 321 Missile Squadron, is constantly awaiting word from the US military's chain of command. 

He was sitting in front of what can hardly be described as state-of-the-art-looking computers. From a 1960s era console, he and another airman control 10 of our country's 400 nuclear missiles. 

"We are constantly improving our systems. They are old, but they are 100 percent efficient," he said. 

The older technology is in some ways by design. It can’t be hacked because it’s not connected to Wi-Fi or the internet.

These launch facilities are spread across Wyoming, Colorado and Nebraska.  Other crews are responsible for missile clusters near Minot, North Dakota and a third near Great Falls, Montana. The missiles are here to deter other countries from attacking the United States or its allies.

Second Lt. Seth Hirschauer, the deputy combat crew commander with the 321 Missile Squadron, said there is a chain of command that gives launch orders. 

"It comes from the President and goes through a few different avenues before it gets to us,” he said.

Before nuclear war, airmen must unlock two green lock boxes. Inside the boxes are top secret codes used to make sure a launch command is legitimate and a key needed as part of the process to arm and then send the missile into the air..

According to Lt. Hirschauer. two people, each using both hands, are required to launch a missile at the "enable panel." As a safeguard, another crew must do the exact same thing in an identical capsule a distance away.

In a simulation, they reenact turning the keys simultaneously to demonstrate how a launch would occur.

Within seconds of an actual missile launch, the missile silo door in a nearby field opens and the missile is launched. This team fired an intercontinental ballistic missile last year to prove the process works. It landed in the ocean without a nuclear warhead onboard.

In case of a nuclear war, these airmen have enough food to survive for months.

The launch capsule where they're sequestered, is actually suspended in a way that if an adversary were to drop a bomb or something above ground, it would violently shake this area but the whole capsule can move and still stay intact.

There are massive blast doors, about a foot thick, to help keep the men inside safe.

Topside, missile security forces are responsible for making sure no one can physically access the missiles.

Master Sgt. Eric Sterman, the flight chief with the 90th Missile Security Forces Squadron, said, "It's very important (to train) because there is a nuclear weapon out here. We have to insure our people can get out here and neutralize any threat that might come out here and try to take our weapon."

Though a takeover hasn't ever occurred, the men methodically train as many as eight times a month, knowing full well other countries would love to get their hands on the United States' weapons.  

"It's something we should keep in mind sir.  There is that threat and that responsibility," Master Sgt. Sterman said.

Whether topside or below, all say their mission isn't one publicized frequently but they believe it's an essential part of keeping all of us safe.