The Cold War Re-Visited

by John Delach

Thursday, June 8th found Bill Christman and me riding in a rental car 33-miles south of Tucson on Interstate-19 to the exit for Green Valley. It’s hot, really hot as we drive west for a mile on a two-lane road before we find our destination. Just off this road, we find a non-descript metal sheeted building behind a small parking lot. A cyclone fence stretches from one side. In front of the fence is a small sign that says: “Watch for rattlesnakes. We’re not kidding!”


Behind the fence sits a concrete structure low to the ground. Welcome back to the Cold War, a de-commissioned and preserved Titan II missile silo. Scott, our guide is a retired air force officer who spent two years as the launch commander in just such a facility. He leads a party of ten, Bill and I, a family of five, mom, dad and three teenage girls, another couple and a single fellow with a Germanic accent, into the facility. We enter a twisting passageway to begin our descent fifty-three steps down a metal staircase.


If the site had been operational, we would have had to pass through four locked checkpoints to gain access. As it is, we pass through two massive blast doors to enter the control room. Everything about this facility is deadly serious. Scott explains how serious from the intricate steel rebar pattern used to strengthen the massive concrete floors, walls and overheads – all laid in single pours to the complex’s communications system that has four independent and redundant back-ups.


The design and engineering of this facility is based on one over-riding reason, protect the Titan II missile and the four-person launch crew from all but a direct hit from an incoming nuclear device. (As an un-nerving aside, Scott pronounces nuclear in the same manner that W does.)


Completely sealed off inside, the crew has enough food, water, power, clean air and a/c to function for 12 days. Massive springs and shock absorbers, flexible cables and hoses protect the missile and the launch instruments from a nuclear shock wave. Positive pressurization prevents contamination by fall out or poisons.


The complex contains three separate chambers connected by tubes. The control center, the missile silo and the crew’s quarters. We only visit the first two but Scott explains the crew quarters are basic, a small kitchen, bunk beds and a toilet.  “The crews rotated every 24-hours so there wasn’t’ a lot of downtime. For the most part we didn’t cook as the kitchen had to be cleaned for the next crew. Instead, we subsisted on a diet of Coke and Twinkies.”


Scott is matter-of-fact, friendly, open and knowledgeable. He leads us through an excellent presentation of the launch procedure while we stand around the control room. He reminds us that the crew (two officers and two enlisted) were in their early twenties or late teens. Crazy as it sounds, the fate of civilization could have rested in the hands of personnel who could not legally buy a beer!


Scott selects two of the girls to play the roles of the commander and her executive officer (XO).He directs them to sit in the two oversized rolling office chairs each at her appropriate work station.  They are about six-feet apart with the sister playing commander perched before a console bursting with a plethora of 1950s and early 1960s technology. Phones featuring rotary dials, analogue displays and switches and black & white TV monitors.


Scott points to a large metal cabinet with all the draws marked “empty.” He explains:    “Originally, these draws were filled with vacuum tubes that powered the internal guidance settings for the missile. The air force estimated these missiles would remain in service for about five years. They actually lasted 20. Tubes must be replaced at regular intervals but after ten years, manufacturing ceased.” Pointing to one panel in the cabinet where a display is located, he continues, “Fortunately, NASA, Boeing and MIT developed this digital guidance system that replaced all those tubes.”


He instructs the sisters to re-enact a missile launch. First, he has the commander find a series of six numbers from her orders which she instructs the XO to enter into a switch that releases the locks holding the missile in place. Then he instructs them to simultaneously turn their two keys on the commander’s count.


(The position of these two keys is deliberately placed about twelve feet from each other making a one-person launch impossible.)


A series of turns activates a green light on the commander’s console. Scott gives the command, “Push the launch button.”


Reality check: It took less than two and a half minutes to launch!


Scott notes, “By the way, the air force thought it best that the crew had no knowledge of their missile’s target.”


Someone asks, “What was the crew to do next?”


“One and done. They had no further real orders.” Scott is not without a sense of humor. “Remember, we were basically big kids. One night, off duty, after a few beers, we concocted a ‘what if’ plan. We’d leave the complex, walk down to the interstate, use our side arms to hijack a vehicle, rob a bank, hook up with four hot girls and hightail it to Mexico.”


In case you are wondering, the missiles cannot be recalled. The time to target was a little more than a half-hour.


And now: “Let us pray.”