Lawmakers from Missile States Worry Pentagon Is Studying Closing Silos

Construction takes place in the late 1950s on silos that will eventually house U.S. intercontinental ballistic missiles. A number of lawmakers are concerned the Pentagon has begun the environmental studies necessary for shutting down some of the underground launch complexes for Minuteman 3 missiles.
National Journal
Rachel Oswald
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Rachel Oswald
Feb. 21, 2014, 9:53 a.m.

A group of law­makers from states that host stra­tegic nuc­le­ar mis­siles are con­cerned the Pentagon could be study­ing clos­ing down some of the weapon silos.

In the last day, mul­tiple let­ters from both cham­bers of Con­gress have been sent to U.S. De­fense Sec­ret­ary Chuck Hagel, de­mand­ing to know wheth­er his de­part­ment is vi­ol­at­ing re­cent fed­er­al law by con­duct­ing en­vir­on­ment­al stud­ies re­lated to the coun­try’s force of un­der­ground-based in­ter­con­tin­ent­al bal­list­ic mis­siles.

“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,” reads one bi­par­tis­an let­ter from Sen­at­ors Jon Test­er (D-Mont.), John Ho­even (R-N.D.), Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) and John Walsh (D-Mont.).

Con­gress in its om­ni­bus fisc­al 2014 spend­ing law has for­bid­den the Pentagon from us­ing ap­pro­pri­ated funds “to con­duct any en­vir­on­ment­al im­pact ana­lys­is re­lated to Minute­man 3 silos that con­tain a mis­sile.”

“If the De­fense De­part­ment is in fact pur­su­ing such a course, we de­mand the leg­al jus­ti­fic­a­tion for how it could so dir­ectly con­tra­dict the let­ter of the law and the re­peatedly stated will of Con­gress,” the four sen­at­ors said.

The Pentagon did not re­turn re­quests for com­ment by press time on wheth­er it was pur­su­ing en­vir­on­ment­al stud­ies of shut­ting down the silos. It is not clear ex­actly what made the law­makers be­lieve the as­sess­ments were tak­ing place, though Cap­it­ol Hill aides on Thursday told the Great Falls Tribune that House Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee staff had heard the Air Force was be­gin­ning the stud­ies.

The U.S. Air Force presently de­ploys roughly 450 nuc­le­ar-tipped stra­tegic mis­siles in silos split evenly among three states:  Montana, North Dakota and Wyom­ing. Though the sen­at­ors and rep­res­ent­at­ives from those states are ter­rit­ori­al of the land-based mis­sile mis­sion, a draw-down to no more than 420 of the weapons is in the off­ing; it is only a mat­ter of when.

The New START ac­cord re­quires both the United States and Rus­sia by 2018 to each cap their ar­sen­als of stra­tegic de­liv­ery vehicles — en­com­passing heavy bombers, sub­mar­ine-launched bal­list­ic mis­siles, and silo-based mis­siles — at 700 apiece, with an ad­di­tion­al 100 sys­tems al­lowed in re­serve by each side.

The Pentagon has yet to start im­ple­ment­ing sub­stan­tial re­duc­tions to its stra­tegic de­liv­ery force. However, when they be­gin, they are ex­pec­ted to hap­pen first in the Ohio-class sub­mar­ine fleet, fol­lowed by the elim­in­a­tion of some nuc­le­ar-cap­able air­craft and end­ing with the ground-based mis­siles.

“We strongly be­lieve main­tain­ing our cur­rent ICBM cap­ab­il­ity is vi­tal to pro­mot­ing peace and keep­ing our coun­try and al­lies safe from cur­rent and emer­ging threats,” reads a let­ter sent to the Pentagon on Thursday by Rep­res­ent­at­ives Steve Daines (R-Mont.), Kev­in Cramer (R-N.D.), Cyn­thia Lum­mis (R-Wyo.), Cory Gard­ner (R-Colo.) and Doug Lam­born (R-Colo.). “We are also con­cerned that be­gin­ning an ICBM en­vir­on­ment­al as­sess­ment could sig­ni­fic­antly dam­age the mor­ale of air­men work­ing on this cru­cial mis­sion.”

The en­lis­ted crews and of­ficers charged with op­er­at­ing the Air Force’s Minute­man 3 ar­sen­al in re­cent months have come un­der much pub­lic scru­tiny, amid a move to side­line more than 90 launch con­trol of­ficers who were im­plic­ated in a probe in­to wide­spread-cheat­ing on routine mis­sile-fir­ing cer­ti­fic­a­tion ex­ams. There were also re­cent rev­el­a­tions about an in­vest­ig­a­tion in­to drug pos­ses­sion by some of­ficers at Glob­al Strike Com­mand, which over­sees mis­sile and nuc­le­ar bomber op­er­a­tions.

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