The Souris River flood inundating Minot, N.D., has spared the 150 nuclear-armed strategic ballistic missiles on alert in underground silos at a nearby Air Force base, according to a service spokeswoman (see GSN, April 25).
A huge winter snow melt has, in fact, posed a months-long challenge for keeping the buried ICBM launch facilities dry, said Capt. Genieve David. All told, though, each of the 60-foot-high missiles remains functional, she said.
"Our missile-launch facilities are not directly threatened by the flooding of the Souris River," she told Global Security Newswire on Thursday in a brief phone interview from Minot Air Force Base, located 8 miles north of the city limits.
The river snakes through the city of Minot west to east.
The North Dakota floodwater reportedly has hit record high levels not seen for more than 130 years and has forced more than 11,000 people from their homes. Last week, an estimated 4,100 houses were deluged, including roughly 2,400 that the Federal Emergency Management Agency found to be under at least 6 feet of water, according to reports.
The river overflowed its banks beginning on June 20.
Remarkably, the 91st Missile Wing's Minuteman 3 force spread over 8,500 square miles at the base -- comprising one-third of the nation's ready long-range ICBMs -- has remained unaffected, said David, who heads base public affairs.
However, winter runoff since April has led to some "localized pooling" around a number of underground missile-launch facilities, she said. Soggy ground conditions affect "just a handful of them," said the Air Force captain, who declined to provide specifics on how many blast-hardened ICBM silos are involved.
The service has been able to head off any serious H2O threat to the ground-based deterrent force through a combination of sandbags and pumps, she said. Minot base officials procured portable pumps this spring to drain off collected ground water, allowing maintenance trucks continued access on dirt roads that lead to the launch facilities, officials said.
"The silos remain dry," said a onetime ICBM commander, who asked not to be named in describing nuclear weapon maintenance. When water seeps into the launch facilities, the service typically drains it off using built-in "sump pumps, just like a basement," said the former officer.
The first version of Minuteman ICBM was fielded in the early 1960s. Today's Minuteman 3 variant initially entered the fleet in June 1970 and a total of 450 missiles are maintained at three bases; beyond Minot, missiles are deployed at F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming and Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana.
Missile silos are geographically dispersed at each base to help protect them from the possibility of a massive attack. Each is connected by hardened cables to underground launch control centers at which two-officer teams serve on around-the-clock alerts.
As of last Saturday, 1,142 Minot airmen and their families had been displaced by the river flooding. With the river crest moving downstream, mandatory evacuations have forced residents as far away as the town of Velva -- 22 miles from Minot -- to leave their homes, Air Force spokesmen said in a June 25 release.
As flood waters this week began to recede, affected military personnel started their recovery effort, base officials said on Wednesday. Officials reportedly have said it could take weeks before the Souris retreats to normal levels.
Thursday brought the news that several water main breaks in the town of Minot had forced the Air Force base -- which reportedly relies on the city system -- to cut its water consumption in half. Residents were advised to drink only boiled or bottled water.
Work crews were unable to locate breaks in the lines because they were under 10 feet of water, base officials said.
"We're well beyond a crisis," Minot Public Works Director Alan Walter was quoted as saying. "We're in very deep. We have a long grind ahead of us."