Above Photo: An unarmed Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile launches during an operational test from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, on February 25, 2016. (Kyla Gifford / US Air Force)
America is building a new weapon of mass destruction, a nuclear missile the length of a bowling lane. It will be able to travel some 6,000 miles, carrying a warhead more than 20 times more powerful than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. It will be able to kill hundreds of thousands of people in a single shot.
The US Air Force plans to order more than 600 of them.
On September 8, the Air Force gave the defense company Northrop Grumman an initial contract of $13.3 billion to begin engineering and manufacturing the missile, but that will be just a fraction of the total bill. Based on a Pentagon report cited by the Arms Control Association Association and Bloomberg News, the government will spend roughly $100 billion to build the weapon, which will be ready to use around 2029.
To put that price tag in perspective, $100 billion could pay 1.24 million elementary school teacher salaries for a year, provide 2.84 million four-year university scholarships, or cover 3.3 million hospital stays for covid-19 patients. It’s enough to build a massive mechanical wall to protect New York City from sea level rise. It’s enough to get to Mars.
One day soon, the Air Force will christen this new war machine with its “popular” name, likely some word that projects goodness and strength, in keeping with past nuclear missiles like the Atlas, Titan, and Peacekeeper. For now, though, the missile goes by the inglorious acronym GBSD, for “ground-based strategic deterrent.” The GBSD is designed to replace the existing fleet of Minuteman III missiles; both are intercontinental ballistic missiles, or ICBMs. Like its predecessors, the GBSD fleet will be lodged in underground silos, widely scattered in three groups known as “wings” across five states. The official purpose of American ICBMs goes beyond responding to nuclear assault. They are also intended to deter such attacks, and serve as targets in case there is one.
Under the theory of deterrence, America’s nuclear arsenal—currently made up of 3,800 warheads—sends a message to other nuclear-armed countries. It relays to the enemy that US retaliation would be so awful, it had better not attack in the first place. Many consider American deterrence a success, pointing to the fact that no country has ever attacked the United States with nuclear weapons. This argument relies on the same faulty logic Ernie used when he told Bert he had a banana in his ear to keep the alligators away: The absence of alligators doesn’t prove the banana worked. Likewise, the absence of a nuclear attack on the United States doesn’t prove that 3,800 warheads are essential to deterrence. And for practical purposes, after the first few, they quickly grow redundant. “Once you’ve dropped a couple of nuclear bombs on a city, if you drop a couple more, all you do is make the rubble shake,” said Air Force Maj. Gen. (Ret.) Robert Latiff, a Bulletin Science and Security Board member who, early in his career, commanded a unit of short-range nuclear weapons in West Germany.
Deterrence is the main argument for having a nuclear arsenal at all. But America’s land-based missiles have another strategic purpose all their own. Housed in permanent silos spread across America’s high plains, they are intended to draw fire to the region in the event of a nuclear war, forcing Russia to use up a lot of atomic ammunition on a sparsely populated area. If that happened, and all three wings were destroyed, the attack would still kill more than 10 million people and turn the area into a charred wasteland, unfarmable and uninhabitable for centuries to come.
The GBSD’s detractors include long-time peace activists, as you’d expect. But many of the missile’s critics are former military leaders, and their criticism has to do with those immovable silos. Relative to nuclear missiles on submarines, which can slink around undetected, and nuclear bombs on airplanes—the two other legs of the nuclear triad, in defense jargon—America’s land-based nuclear missiles are easy marks.
Because they are so exposed, they pose another risk: To avoid being destroyed and rendered useless—their silos provide no real protection against a direct Russian nuclear strike—they would be “launched on warning,” that is, as soon as the Pentagon got wind of an incoming nuclear attack. But the computer systems that warn of such incoming fire may be vulnerable to hacking and false alarms. During the Cold War, military computer glitches in both the United States and Russia caused numerous close calls, and since then, cyberthreats have become an increasing concern. An investigation ordered by the Obama administration in 2010 found that the Minutemen missiles were vulnerable to a potentially crippling cyberattack. Because an error could have disastrous consequences, James Mattis, the former Marine Corps general who would go on to become the 26th US secretary of defense, testified to the Senate Armed Services Committee in 2015 that getting rid of America’s land-based nuclear missiles “would reduce the false alarm danger.” Whereas a bomber can be turned around even on approach to its target, a nuclear missile launched by mistake can’t be recalled.
The three missile wings are headquartered, respectively, at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Great Falls, Montana; Minot Air Force Base, just north of Minot, North Dakota; and F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Cheyenne, Wyoming. The Warren missile complex extends into Nebraska and Colorado. The Montana missile complex, which is the most spread out, covers 13,800 square miles, more territory than Maryland. There are missile silos in the Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest and the Pawnee National Grassland. There are 12, plus a launch control facility, on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation, home of the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara nations. There are missile silos next to homes, farms, and schools.
A sense of how spread out the missile fields are is important to understanding how embedded they are in local economies. Shane Etzwiler is president of the Great Falls Chamber of Commerce, and I met with him and County Commissioner Briggs in July at the chamber, located on a pandemic-quieted downtown street. Etzwiler lives 35 miles east of Great Falls in Fairfield, a community of some 700 people with spectacular views of the Rocky Mountain Front. Airmen bound for the launch control facility known as Hotel 1 pass through Fairfield. “They’re stopping in communities and they’re buying the drinks, buying the to-go because they’re going to be in the hole,” Etzwiler said. In Fairfield, “that restaurant will have 24 or 36 airmen stop in, getting to-go orders or coming out of the field ready for a different meal. The impact is tremendous in our area.”
In the early teens, the Pentagon made plans to remove 50 nuclear missiles to comply with New START. Legislators from the “missile caucus” states swung into action, and in January 2014, Republican North Dakota Senator John Hoeven attached an amendment to a major spending bill that denied the Defense Department the funds it needed to begin making cuts. When, a month later, members of the missile caucus got wind that the Defense Department was going ahead with an environmental assessment on eliminating missile silos, they drafted outraged bipartisan letters to the defense secretary. One, signed by senators from Montana and North Dakota, read: “We write to make very clear our strenuous opposition to any attempt by the Department of Defense to circumvent existing law to proceed with an Environmental Impact Study or an Environmental Assessment on the elimination of Minuteman 3 silos.” The Pentagon put the assessment on hold and came up with a scheme to remove the 50 missiles from silos across all three missile wings, rather than taking out a whole squadron from a single Air Force base. The Pentagon also said it would keep the empty silos “warm,” meaning maintained and ready to use. Lawmakers from the missile caucus applauded; Democratic Sen. Jon Tester of Montana called it “a big win for our nation’s security and for Malmstrom Air Force Base and north-central Montana.”
He was right on at least one point: Maintaining the silos would bring some medium-term financial gain to north-central Montana. The military—Malmstrom Air Force Base and the Montana Air National Guard—accounts for a third of the regional economy, with another third coming from agriculture and a third from everything else. Malmstrom alone is one of the region’s largest employers. The base had an economic impact of $372 million in 2019, including direct and indirect jobs as well as expenditures on construction and other services. It’s intertwined with city life in other ways, too. “Malmstrom brings a diversification into our community that we wouldn’t have otherwise,” said Briggs. “If you look around Great Falls, we’ve got amenities that cities twice our size don’t have. A symphony.”
Kristen Inbody, a writer who works for Benefis Health System in Great Falls, credited Malmstrom as a tool of desegregation, and for making Great Falls the most racially diverse city in Montana. Inbody grew up in Choteau, a town surrounded to the east, south, and west by 20 missile silos. “In real life, in everyday life, it’s good roads and a better economy than there would be otherwise,” she said. She is conscious of the devastating effect a nuclear strike on her region would have. “People don’t think it’s going to happen,” she said. “The chatter is way more often about Yellowstone.” She referred to the supervolcano under Yellowstone National Park, 300 miles away, which last erupted 70,000 years ago.
“The town treated the base almost like a cargo cult object, in that it fell from the sky and brought great prosperity,” said former missileer Bosetti. Case in point: Malmstrom decommissioned its runway in 1997 because no fixed-wing aircraft used the base anymore, and the runway was expensive to maintain. Ever since, local business and political leaders have tried to bring a mission to Malmstrom that would reopen the runway—and rejected other, potentially lucrative investments near the base, including a housing development, that might interfere with theoretical future runway use. During his time in Great Falls, Bosetti said, a major shipping company wanted to open a sorting center near the runway. “That would have been amazing. Look at the growth of shipping and delivery,” he said. But “the town got really mad and said, ‘No, no, no, the planes are coming back. We can’t build this thing because it’ll stop the tanker wing from relocating here eventually in the future.’ It never did. It never will.” As recently as 2019, Montana Republican Rep. Greg Gianforte attached language to a defense bill directing the Air Force to consider improvements to mothballed facilities like the Malmstrom airstrip. “With some work, the base’s runway can once again host flying missions,” Gianforte said in a speech.
The air strip may be a lost cause, but for today’s city boosters, nuclear weapons hold economic promise. Greater Great Falls can expect to host a third of the 600-plus GBSD missiles the Air Force is having built.
The Air Force plans to begin GBSD-related construction around Cheyenne in 2023, Great Falls in 2026, and Minot in 2029. Launch control facilities will be upgraded. The special vehicles that move the missiles, known as transporter erector loaders, might clock in at a different size or weight than the current ones, requiring updates to county roads. “We’re talking infrastructure and roads and bridges and things like that,” Etzwiler said. “They need project managers, they need warehousing, they need skilled trade workers and electronics, telecom, you name it.”
It all means more jobs. “We’re excited,” he said.
The Invention Of The Nuclear Sponge
Anuclear bomb without a delivery device is a bullet without a gun. The Americans used airplanes to drop the first atomic weapons in 1945, but soon both Washington and Moscow sought other means of delivery, something that could launch the explosive all the way from home turf to foreign soil. Nazi Germany’s V2 rocket served as inspiration. After World War II, the Soviet Union took possession of the V2 test range and factory, but the United States got its hands on the rocket’s inventor, Wernher von Braun, and brought him to America. US nuclear missiles followed, with the first, the Atlas, entering service in 1958. In addition to the Titan and Peacekeeper, there were the Jupiter and Snark, the last so-named after the elusive prey in the Lewis Carroll poem “The Hunting of the Snark.”
In the words of a publication from Los Alamos National Laboratory, a warhead must be able to “survive and function while traveling through multiple severe environments: the extreme violence of launching; accelerating within seconds to Mach 23 (about 18,000 miles per hour); entering the frigid vacuum of space; then reentering the atmosphere at speeds that threaten to break up or burn up the reentry vehicle and its warhead.” The parts of a nuclear missile include several rocket motors, which fall away in stages during flight, and a re-entry vehicle, which houses the warhead and carries it all the way to its destination.
The Minuteman III, first deployed 50 years ago, is today America’s only land-based ICBM. Proponents of the GBSD walk a tricky line, trying to convey an urgent need to replace the Minuteman III while trying not to say it is falling apart, which would presumably undermine its deterrent effect. So they refer to the Minuteman system as “aging” and say that while modernization must absolutely happen right now, with ongoing maintenance the current missiles will be completely fine until 2029.
How “aged” is the system? The silos were built at the same time as the underground launch control centers. Bosetti described an episode in one of the launch control capsules he frequented in the late aughts, a months-long period with failed sewage pumps. “There was a lake filled with sewage at the bottom of the outer shell, and a 2-foot diameter, 3-foot tall cardboard tube with a plastic bag liner we used as a toilet,” he said. “We’d periodically lug it out to the elevator, where the sergeant upstairs would try to empty it into the sewage lagoon. After a few hours, you’d stop smelling the lake, but that was just a symptom of hydrogen sulfide poisoning. Once they fixed the sewage problems, there was no remediation or cleaning of the capsule shell.”
“Even if we’re restricting it to pure utilitarian calculations of military usefulness,” Bosetti said, “those capsules and their silos are decades past their design life.”
Predictably, as the US Air Force sought better and better nuclear missiles—cheaper and less accident-prone, with ever-improving range, accuracy, and destructive capability—the Soviet Union did the same. In a 1990 study published by the Air Force, the authors wrote that “improvements in Soviet ICBM forces and missile accuracy raised serious concerns over the ability of silo-based ICBMs to survive an attack.” In July 1976, Congress refused to appropriate funds for the Peacekeeper, convinced that the silo-based system proposed for it would make it vulnerable. The defense establishment explored a variety of alternatives to fixed silos, including missiles that could be moved around on train tracks. In 1979, President Jimmy Carter approved a system of “multiple protective shelters,” in which Peacekeeper missiles would be mobile. President Ronald Reagan tried to reverse that decision and base the missile in fixed silos, but Congress again rejected such a plan in 1982.
Political battles over the vulnerability of fixed silos continued through the 1980s. Those eager to get new missiles deployed one way or another, like Reagan, eventually solved the conundrum with an intellectual contortion. Defense thinkers began to argue that the susceptible nature of America’s silo-based nuclear missiles was not a flaw but a feature. They redefined the silos as intentionally vulnerable, designed to make Moscow use up weapons. This rationale continues today. “The ICBM force provides a cost-imposing strategy on an adversary,” Mattis explained to a Senate committee in 2017. Because they are meant to draw nuclear attacks like a sponge draws water, military analysts have long called America’s land-based missiles the “nuclear sponge.”
Zane Zell’s grandparents and parents farmed wheat on flat land outside of Shelby, Montana. In the 1960s, when Zell was in high school, the government seized a few acres of the family farm. “The military comes in and says, ‘We’re going to build a missile here, so either sell us your land or we condemn it and take it,’” he said in July, sitting in a blue plaid shirt, sunglasses, and a cloth mask in front of his brick house in Shelby. The military fenced off the area and it became Minuteman missile silo Papa One. “A lot of people in this area were in poverty. Either they had no knowledge of the missiles, or didn’t care, or they were supportive of them.”
As a student at the University of Denver, Zell became involved in the anti-war movement. With his wife and children, he eventually returned to run the farm. He still resented the missile on his land and would perform small acts of rebellion, deliberately driving over a surveying stake or jostling the chain-link fence with his tractor; by the time an airman appeared to see what had set off the sensors, Zell would be on the other side of his field.
In the summer of 1982, by which time the US had 1,000 ICBMs scattered across seven states, Zell attended an event in the nearby town of Conrad. There, Missoulans Mark Anderlik and Karl Zanzig gave a presentation on the Silence One Silo campaign, its modest yet audacious goal encapsulated in its name. The two young men were on the lookout for people like Zell, farmers sympathetic to their cause who had missiles on their land. The following summer, Silence One Silo held a several-day “Little Peace Camp on the Prairie” on the Zell farm, attended by about 200 people. Speakers came from around the state. They surrounded Papa One with farm machinery and trucks.
Silence One Silo was just one of many efforts: In the 1980s, an anti-nuclear weapons movement bloomed around the world. Organizations of physicians and religious leaders banded together. The Mormon Church opposed a plan to base the Peacekeeper missile in Utah and Nevada.
Then the world changed. In 1988, led by Reagan and Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev, the United States and Soviet Union joined the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, the first agreement to ban an entire category of nuclear weapons. With the Cold War over and the Soviet Union in economic shambles, Moscow and Washington made more serious cuts to their arsenals, both through unilateral moves and the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START I), signed in 1991, which limited the number of warheads each country could have. The United States silenced not just one, but 550 nuclear missile silos. In 2008, the Air Force declared the Zell farm’s silo inactive. It tractored in a 65-foot transporter erector loader to remove the missile. It blew up the silo and filled what was left with concrete. The fence remains, surrounding overgrown dry grass, a rusting sign warning that it’s still a “hazardous area.”
“We didn’t physically shut down any missile silo,” Zell said. “The treaty shut them down. But we tried to put pressure politically on our representatives. We tried to bring it to the public’s attention.”
One nuclear weapon could wipe a mid-size city off the map and kill most of its people. Several nuclear explosions over several cities would kill tens of millions. If 100 detonated over cities, it would likely cause a global nuclear winter, in which widespread firestorms blanketed the world in smoke, blocking out sunlight, lowering the Earth’s temperature, killing off agriculture, and leading to mass starvation. In 1986, governments possessed a spectacularly redundant 64,099 nuclear warheads, the vast majority in the hands of the two superpowers, though Great Britain, France, and China also had a few hundred each.
With the arms reductions that followed the Cold War, by the time a fresh-faced US President Barack Obama entered office in 2009, there were “only” 11,410 nuclear warheads in the world. But by then, another worrisome trend was afoot: Whereas at the end of the Cold War, only six governments had nuclear weapons, now nine had them, with India, Pakistan, and North Korea having joined the United States, Russia, China, France, Britain, and Israel. With more components and fuels in more places, experts worried that not only rogue nations but even a terrorist group might be able to build a crude nuclear weapon.
On a sunny morning in April 2009, Obama gave a speech to tens of thousands of people in Prague. He observed that “in a strange turn of history, the threat of global nuclear war has gone down, but the risk of a nuclear attack has gone up.” He pledged his country’s commitment to a world without nuclear weapons, and went on to negotiate New START, signed in April 2010, limiting the United States and Russia to 1,550 deployed strategic warheads each. (Today New START is the only remaining treaty limiting the two countries’ nuclear arsenals; Russia and the United States agreed to extend it for five years late in January.) Obama’s efforts to reduce nuclear arsenals were the main reason he won the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize.
But by late 2010, the president was in a bind. To be ratified and go into effect, New START needed 67 Senate votes, and Obama’s Democratic Party had only 59 seats. Arizona Senator Jon Kyl, who as Republican whip influenced how fellow party members voted, had opposed nuclear weapon agreements in the past.
In May, the White House submitted a congressionally mandated report (known as the “section 1251 report,” after a section of that year’s National Defense Authorization Act) in which it outlined a 10-year, $180 billion scheme for maintaining and modernizing nuclear weapons. For Kyl, that wasn’t enough, and the Arizona senator spent much of the year pressuring the administration to commit more funds to modernization. He threatened to withhold support or delay a vote on New START. When Democrats lost seats in a mid-term election, Obama knew that if the New START vote was delayed until the next session of Congress, chances of ratification would be even worse.
As the carrot to his stick, Kyl implied that he could be persuaded to vote in favor of ratifying New START. For instance, in a July 2010 op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, he wrote that most senators would likely consider the nuclear treaty “relatively benign” as long as Obama committed enough money to nuclear modernization. Kyl kept up the pressure until the White House updated its 1251 report in November, adding another $5.4 billion for nuclear modernization, including $4.1 billion to be spent between 2012 and 2016. Just two days before the Senate vote, less than a fortnight before the end of the session, Obama made a pledge to four key Republican senators, writing a letter in which he said that “nuclear modernization requires investment for the long-term,” and “[t]hat is my commitment to the Congress—that my administration will pursue these programs and capabilities for as long as I am president.” His efforts at persuasion worked. On December 22, 71 senators, including 12 Republicans, voted to ratify New START. Kyl, after dangling the possibility of his support, was not among them.
Obama had his foreign policy victory. The United States and Russia would cut back on warheads. But it came at the cost of committing extra billions to nuclear modernization, which helped pave the way for the GBSD.
In August 2019 in the suburban city of Roy, Utah, 11 people grabbed shovels and lined up for a group photo next to a long pile of dirt. Behind them, the Wasatch mountains shimmered in the summer heat. The lineup included two real estate executives, four corporate leaders, the president of the Utah Senate, two of Utah’s four members of the House of Representatives, and the state’s two senators, Mike Lee and former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. Though the empty lot in which they stood adjoined Hill Air Force Base, there were no military officials among the group. Lee and Romney flanked the central figure like bishops in a game of chess, but in place of king and queen stood just one person, Kathy Warden, chief executive officer of Northrop Grumman, her red jacket vivid against the men’s blues and grays. They were there to break ground on a Northrop Grumman building, the company’s GBSD command post, though it had not yet won the contract to build the weapon. Romney touted the “high-skill, high-paying jobs” the project would bring to his state. The GBSD had recently survived a defunding attempt, when, in July 2019, Oregon Democratic Rep. Earl Blumenauer suggested an independent study on extending the life of the Minuteman III and delaying its replacement. But his proposed amendment to the defense authorization bill was voted down.
Raised in small-town Maryland, Warden has an MBA from George Washington University and early in her career worked for General Electric as a senior manager in commercial industries. She has said in interviews that the 9/11 terrorist attacks prompted her to change professional tracks and switch into defense. “I wanted to create a world that was a safer place for my son to grow up in,” she told her university alumni association last year. “That is what made me make a professional change but also for the past 17 years, is what kept me in this industry because I feel like I’m doing something to contribute … to impact the world in some small way.” After a stint as vice president of intelligence systems at the defense giant General Dynamics, she joined Northrop Grumman as head of its cybersecurity division in 2008. In January 2019, she ascended to the top role.
Defense companies don’t expect politicians to vote for massive defense spending without encouragement.
So, for instance, ahead of the 2020 elections, individuals associated with Northrop Grumman gave $1.55 million to political campaigns, and Political Action Committees associated with the company gave $3.77 million. Seven-hundred and forty Northrop Grumman PAC donations went to specific candidates, including five senators and 14 House members from Utah, Wyoming, Nebraska, Colorado, Montana, and North Dakota—all would-be beneficiaries of the new missile—in amounts ranging from $2,000 to $10,000 each. A Northrop Grumman PAC donated $12,000 in 2018 and $10,000 in 2020 to campaigns for Cheney, the Wyoming Republican who objected to moving money away from the GBSD.
Third, in addition to donating to politicians and their campaigns, defense companies, like all major industries in America, spend considerable sums on lobbying, hiring professional influencers to try to achieve legislative results. In 2019, the defense aeronautics industry collectively spent $46.9 million on lobbying. Northrop Grumman outspent all its rivals, paying $13.6 million for 57 individual lobbyists to work on members of Congress. In 2020, it spent $12 million. Among its many campaigns, the company paid $60,000 between April and June of last year to have two partners in The Duberstein Group, David Schiappa and Anne Wall, influence members of the senate on the GBSD and the Defense Authorization Act, according to one of the company’s required lobbying disclosure forms. As is typical in important influence campaigns, one of those partners had Republican ties and one Democratic. Before they joined The Duberstein Group, Schiappa was the Republican secretary in the Senate, a position that schedules legislation and informs senators of pending bills; Wall was the floor director for Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois.
Lawmakers themselves also frequently become lobbyists. Remember Jon Kyl, the Arizona senator who, back in 2010, fought so hard to increase funding for nuclear modernization? Kyl left office in 2013 and became a lobbyist for Covington & Burling, where he worked on behalf of Northrop Grumman, among other clients. In 2017 and 2018 alone, Kyl’s work for Covington & Burling earned him nearly $1.9 million. In September 2018, after Arizona Sen. John McCain passed away, Kyl returned to fill his late colleague’s seat for four months, during which time he voted in favor of a $674 billion defense appropriations package and co-authored an op-ed in favor of acquiring low-yield nuclear warheads, controversial “small” atomic weapons. In January, 2019, Kyl returned to Covington & Burling as a lobbyist, completing what Politico lobbying reporter Theodoric Meyer called “one of the most elegant spins through Washington’s revolving door in recent memory.”
None of this—the revolving doors, the campaign donations, or the lobbying—is illegal or even unusual in US politics. But it is an essential part of understanding why $100 billion will be spent on the GBSD.
In addition, though—besides nuclear weapons’ deep entrenchment in local economies; besides Northrop pressing all the levers of power at its disposal; besides elected officials who equate ICBMs with a strong defense, and who tend to be from regions the missiles benefit financially—besides all this, there was another reason Warden could feel confident about the as-yet-uninked GBSD contract through the spring and summer of 2020, even as the pandemic raged, unemployment soared, civil unrest tore through cities, and the West Coast caught fire, upending so much for so many:
No other company was bidding for the project.
As anyone who has ever hired a plumber knows, it pays to get more than one bid, and the Pentagon, too, subscribes to this common-sense logic, at least in theory. In 2015, the undersecretary of defense for acquisition, Frank Kendall, told reporters that “the trend toward fewer and larger prime contractors has the potential to affect innovation, limit the supply base, pose entry barriers to small, medium and large businesses, and ultimately reduce competition — resulting in higher prices to be paid by the American taxpayer in order to support our warfighters.”
Several years ago, multiple companies did plan to compete for the GBSD. A single acquisition, though, clinched Northrop’s spot as prime contractor.
In the Promontory Mountains of northern Utah, barren hills stand out against a hot blue sky, while nearby, salt flats glitter in place of beaches on the shores of the Great Salt Lake. In the 1950s, the company Thiokol began making and testing rocket engines here amid the moonscape emptiness. It constructed a complex of roads, buildings, and test ranges, sprawling over some 30 square miles.
While some rocket engines rely on liquid fuel, America’s modern ICBMs use solid fuel, a technology Thiokol pioneered. Solid fuel starts out with a peanut-butter-like consistency before it is baked into a hard, rubbery mass to which an igniter is attached. Over the years, Thiokol built solid-fuel engines for NASA’s Space Shuttle, as well as for the Peacekeeper and Minuteman nuclear missiles, all tested in Promontory.
After the Cold War, demand for weapons of mass destruction shrank, and the US defense industry went through a wave of mergers. The company ATK swallowed Thiokol in 2001, and Orbital Sciences swallowed ATK in 2015, resulting in a company called Orbital ATK, which inherited the rocket-testing expanse in Promontory. Orbital ATK was now one of only two solid-fuel rocket engine makers in the country, the other being California-based Aerojet Rocketdyne.
By this time Northrop Grumman, itself the result of multiple mergers, was one of the largest US defense companies. (As of 2020, it was the fifth largest, after Lockheed Martin, Boeing, General Dynamics, and Raytheon.) Like its fellow leviathans, it had its eye on the Pentagon’s faucet of nuclear modernization contracts, and like them, it had no in-house capacity to build solid-fuel rocket engines. If it was going to build an ICBM, it would have to subcontract to acquire the engines from elsewhere. But why buy milk when you can afford a cow? Northrop Grumman set its sights on acquiring Orbital ATK. The Federal Trade Commission scrutinized and eventually approved the purchase, though it issued a decision prohibiting Northrop Grumman from price discrimination when its competitors came shopping for solid rocket motors. In 2018, Northrop bought Orbital ATK for $9.2 billion, and with it the Promontory rocket range, just 45 miles northwest of Roy and the Hill Air Force Base.
When the Air Force invited bids for the first portion of the GBSD project—a preliminary contract known as the technology maturation and risk reduction phase—Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and Boeing all submitted proposals; the latter two won contracts in 2017. The industry, and the Air Force, expected that both Northrop Grumman and Boeing would eventually submit competing bids for the main contract, known as the engineering, manufacturing, and development phase. But in the summer of 2019, Boeing dropped out of the race with complaints that the process was unfair. A Boeing spokesman later told Washington Business Journal that one reason it decided not to bid was “concern about Northrop Grumman’s compliance with a 2018 Federal Trade Commission order that prohibits it from discriminating in the sale of solid rocket motors.” At the time Boeing withdrew, though, it was also suffering in other departments, with aviation authorities having grounded its 737 Max jetliner after two crashes. The company may not have wanted to take on the expense and risk of bidding for the nuclear missile.
By August, 2020, Northrop Grumman’s new three-story nerve center in Roy was nearly complete and partially occupied, with a #MASKUPGBSD sign taped to the door. In September, to the surprise of no one in the defense industry, the Air Force finally crowned Northrop with the GBSD deal. The initial $13.3 billion contract covers 8.5 years, up to and including testing the new weapon. Work will take place in Roy and at the testing range in Promontory, as well as in six other states. Money will flow to hundreds of sub-contractors. Ten thousand people will be directly employed. Returns will accrue to the 70-odd financial institutions that invest in Northrop Grumman, and to the pensions, mutual funds, and retirement accounts they control.
I asked Latiff to hypothesize on why the Air Force was okay with a single-bid contract for such an enormous undertaking. “The Air Force, honestly, is not okay with it, but the Air Force really didn’t have any choice,” he said. The fact that it had no choice—at least not one that wouldn’t subject the project to more political scrutiny—speaks to a basic truth about the publicly traded companies that sell enormous and complex weapons systems to governments around the world: In many ways, they’re more powerful than the Pentagon.
What Could Go Wrong?
In the early 1970s, around the time Zane Zell was bothering the fence around missile silo Papa One on his farm, Bruce Blair was serving as a missileer. He spent a harrowing night under the wheat fields of Montana in the fall of 1973. Israel and its Arab neighbors—client states of the United States and the Soviet Union, respectively—were at war. On October 24, Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev told US President Richard Nixon his country might have to consider “taking appropriate steps unilaterally” in the conflict. On October 25, the United States put its nuclear forces on alert. Sitting in a launch control capsule, Blair and his crewmate received an emergency message from the Pentagon, ordering them to prepare to fire. “With a rush of adrenalin, we opened our safe and retrieved the launch keys and the codes needed to authenticate a launch order, and strapped into our chairs to brace for blast waves produced by incoming Soviet nuclear warheads,” he later wrote. They waited for the order to fire. Hundreds of hours in launch simulators had conditioned them to act immediately when it came.
Blair and his crewmate never got the order. The crisis passed. It was likely the closest the two countries had come to nuclear war since the Cuban missile crisis in 1962. It was one of multiple close calls and errors during the Cold War that could have ended with hundreds of thousands of people dead. In the 2000s, after earning a doctorate in operations research and spending years working on the academic side of national security, Blair began campaigning to get rid of nuclear weapons altogether, co-founding the organization Global Zero. “There wasn’t really a morally driven or philosophically driven change of heart,” he said on the phone in May from his home in Pennsylvania. “It was really just the realization that we’re not going to be able to manage all the risks.” The more he learned, the more he worried. “An extremely low-probability event is eventually going to happen,” he said. Today Global Zero counts not just politicians, academics, and diplomats among its active supporters, but retired military leaders, mostly generals, from every country that has nuclear weapons except North Korea, including the United States, Russia, and China.
US President Dwight Eisenhower famously coined the term “military-industrial complex” in his 1961 farewell speech, warning Americans to guard against its “acquisition of unwarranted influence.” They didn’t. In an earlier, less famous speech, before he authorized the first Minuteman program in 1955, Eisenhower said “every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.”
Today, nuclear weapons are the food on the table in too many cases. I asked Blair how to get rid of a weapon so entrenched in people’s livelihoods. “It’s a serious hurdle to overcome,” he said. Blair passed away from a stroke, at the age of 72, in July.
What if rural Montana could have high-quality roads without the Air Force? What if a military base weren’t the only route to a dignified living? What if the range of choices available to Americans wasn’t so narrow that building a weapon of mass destruction can come to be seen as an essential paycheck?
In our mental landscapes, a nuclear war and a supervolcanic eruption understandably seem similar. They would both kill masses, darken the skies, and change life as we know it, and both are unlikely to happen. But they are fundamentally different.
One of them, humans build, and can dismantle.