For North Dakotans living next to nuclear missiles, the specter of a world-altering war is an afterthought
North Dakota's nuclear arsenal spreads over a vast area north of the bend in the Missouri River, with 150 Minuteman IIIs forming a broad crescent around Minot Air Force Base, according to mapping done by the anti-nuclear organization Nukewatch.
GARRISON, N.D. — For his entire life, Shannon Seidler has shared his family's land with one of the most destructive weapons in human history. He hardly thinks about it.
The 40-ton intercontinental ballistic missile, part of the U.S. military’s world-leading nuclear arsenal, sits in a fortified silo a few football fields from Seidler’s home and just east of Garrison, a town of a little more than 1,500 people. The guided rocket, one of hundreds just like it across the region, could launch at nearly a moment’s notice over the North Pole to Russia, where it's capable of dealing a blow orders of magnitude larger than the atom bomb that destroyed Hiroshima in 1945.
“I always told my wife and kids, if the ground ever starts shaking we know it’s over,” Seidler joked. But aside from the hassle of unannounced visits from military men from the nearby Minot Air Force Base, Seidler said the missile on his property doesn’t bother him.
In the last month, Russia’s invasion of neighboring Ukraine has thrust the specter of nuclear conflict back into international conversations, even if the prospect remains an infinitesimal possibility. Days after launching the assault on Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered his country’s nuclear forces to “special combat readiness,” escalating tensions in an already precarious global order that has resulted from the war in eastern Europe.
But Seidler, who was born a few years after nuclear missiles were first put into place in central North Dakota, said he’s lived through too many conflicts to be personally troubled by this one. “I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t really think about it anymore.”
The missile on Seidler’s land is one of several hundred just like it in the U.S. ICBM arsenal, which is spread over three central-continental states: Wyoming, Montana and North Dakota. Known as Minuteman III missiles, the rockets are the descendants of the original Minuteman introduced in the 1960s, during the Cold War nuclear arms race with the Soviet Union. Today the U.S. Air Force reports that it holds a fleet of 400 active Minuteman III missiles . Another 50 silos that once housed missiles remain "warm but empty," a senior defense official told the Los Angeles Times in 2014 .
North Dakota's arsenal spreads over a vast area north of the bend in the Missouri River, with 150 Minuteman IIIs forming a broad crescent around Minot Air Force Base, according to mapping done by the anti-nuclear organization Nukewatch for its 1988 book "Nuclear Heartland," which was updated in 2015. A spokesperson for Minot Air Force Base declined to confirm the size of the North Dakota fleet or the veracity of Nukewatch's mapping.
The installation of the original Minuteman missiles in the 1960s, amid the high-stakes politics of the Cold War, was world-altering, but in North Dakota, the missile sites' innocuous barbed-wire fences and distinctive needles have become a part of the prairie landscape.
“We’ve lived with ‘em for a long time. It is what it is,” said Garrison Mayor Stuart Merry. If anything, Merry said he’s proud that his town plays host to such a core pillar of American national security. “If they think this is important, I'm at peace with it,” he said.
John LaForge, an editor of "Nuclear Heartland," noted that the Minuteman III missiles arming the Great Plains are among the most accessible in the world. “Interwoven with the lives of the people in whose midst they have been placed,” his book observes, the missiles are shielded only by a fence and a retractable concrete hatch. LaForge recalled that during the research for his book, he interviewed teenagers who entertained themselves by hitting the missile site fences with rocks or sticks and waiting for military security to respond to the resulting alarm.
He also noted that circumstances have changed substantially since he and his Nukewatch colleagues first tracked down the locations of America’s ICBMs, collecting publicly available documents from county officials to triangulate and map the full fleet. The old joke that North Dakota houses the third largest nuclear arsenal in the world, behind the U.S. and Russia, is no longer true. Disarmament agreements between the U.S. and Russia have seen the superpowers’ arsenals scaled back over the years, with the entire fleet of the Grand Forks Air Force Base removed in the 1990s and the number of nuclear warheads on the remaining Minuteman IIIs reduced from three to one.
But LaForge, an ardent opponent of the United States' nuclear build-up, isn’t cavalier about the presence of the weapons that remain. He has advocated for their decommissioning for decades, pointing to the arsenal's potential for "civilization-ending destructiveness."
He noted the conventional thinking is that the powerful arsenal of weapons in North Dakota makes the sparsely populated state a prime target for Russia. "The clear, if unspoken implication” of the decision to site America’s ICBMs in their current place, "Nuclear Heartland" observes, “is that the remote and wide open spaces of the Great Plains were to be sacrificed so that California, New York, Washington, D.C., and other centers of more importance to the planners could fight on in a nuclear war.”
Often referred to as the nuclear triad , the U.S. nuclear fleet consists of nuclear submarines, B-52 bomber planes and the Minuteman IIIs, aging rockets that could begin to be replaced by a more modern missile system in the coming years. The Minot Air Force Base commands two of the three legs of the triad, and Nukewatch says 15 manned launch-control centers oversee North Dakota's 150 silos.
U.S. Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-ND, said his years of visits with airmen at the Minot base have given him the utmost confidence in the safety of their operations, and he objected to the arguments of nuclear skeptics that the United States should further shrink its arsenal. Former Secretary of Defense William Perry, a Democrat, has repeatedly argued for the retirement of the U.S. ICBM force.
The last month’s developments in Europe have already shifted the parameters of that debate, Cramer told The Forum. While Putin’s order to put Russian nukes on "high alert" might be dismissed as political posturing, Cramer said the country's behavior in Ukraine serves as a clear argument against nuclear disarmament.
“Vladimir Putin has proven once again that he does what he says he’s going to do,” the Republican senator said. “He is not a guy that makes false promises, and I think we have to take his rhetoric as his word and prepare for the worst-case scenario.”
Still, LaForge said Russia’s flirtations with nuclear escalation aren’t so different from steps routinely taken by the United States. At military bases in Europe, western allied nations conduct annual dress rehearsals of a nuclear attack on Russia, he noted. And while Putin’s "high alert" order sparked international alarm, "Nuclear Heartland" notes that the United States' ICBM fleet remains on “alert” status nearly 100% of the time.
But even with constant reminders of the nuclear age surrounding them, residents of North Dakota missile silo country said they don't pay much mind to remote possibilities of nuclear conflict.
“It’s an everyday occurrence,” said Renville County Sheriff Roger Hutchinson, the top law enforcement officer in a county at the northern edge of North Dakota's ICBM ring.
“God forbid,” he added, “if we ever see ‘em coming out the holes, then life will never be the same.”
Hutchinson, who came to North Dakota in 2011 as a special agent with the Department of Defense and used to brief local law enforcement on activity in the missile field, said he knows more about the weapons than most of his neighbors. But those who pass them on the roads each day don't give them a second thought, he said.
Anyway, there’s not much to be done about them.
“The farmer just plants around them every year, and that's just the way it is,” the sheriff said. He added that most farmers like having the ICBMs around, especially in wintertime, when snow can make gravel roads on their land difficult to traverse.
“It actually helps out if you’ve got a couple in your area," he said. "Because you know your roads will be nice and plowed."
Readers can reach Forum reporter Adam Willis, a Report for America corps member, at email@example.com.