In 1963, the Cold War was heating up. The Berlin Wall had gone up two years earlier. The Cuban Missile Crisis was less than a year in the past. The next generation of US nuclear missiles was ready, and 54 silos were created in three locations, each containing a single, new Titan II missile, the most powerful ever made by the United States. Their mission: peace through deterrence.
Today, the only Titan II silo left is this one, known as 571-7, in the Arizona desert south of Tucson. It was preserved as a museum, to remember the Titan II program, and the thousands of men and women who spent their lives in these underground bunkers, knowing that a mere 58 seconds from receiving the order to launch, they would be part of the ending of the world.
From the surface, 571-7 would be easy to miss. Surrounded by barbed wire fencing, it basically consists of a couple of garages, a radar antenna, and a flat metal hydraulic cover to the silo itself. (Today, of course, there is also a museum and administrative building.) Only a small staircase and freight elevator lead into the fortified structures below, and access was granted through video surveillance and phones.
This is the hydraulic door that opens to fire the missile.
Visitors begin their experiences here at the Titan Missile Museum in the small museum, before embarking on roughly hour-long tours by trained volunteer guides. I was lucky, and my guide, Margie Humphrey, was actually a former commander of a silo just like this one, and she was able to give our small group of three some remarkable insights.
Margie presents us with some possible launch orders.
The Titan II missile deployment lasted from 1963 to 1987, and brought with it some remarkable advances from prior missiles like the Atlas and Titan I. First, its fuel could be stored onboard, drastically reducing the time from launch command to liftoff as well as the time it could be stored fueled. Second, it used hypergolic fuel and oxidizer, which did not ignite until contact, increasing the reliability of the missile. Finally, it launched from its underground bunker, again cutting the time needed. All in all, the Titan II had a range of 5,500 miles, and carried a 9 megaton warhead, the largest ever put into a US ICBM.
Let’s put that warhead into perspective for a moment. Assuming it is detonated at the proper height (most of these warheads were “city-killers,” designed to be exploded above the ground), it would have a blast radius – meaning near 100% destruction and fatality rate – of about 3.5 miles. Furthermore, it could cause lethal burns to unprotected people within about 20 miles. Dropped into the middle of a major metropolitan area, this would be casualties potentially in the millions, not to mention additional fatalities caused by long-term radiation poisoning. It is immense power, and Margie demonstrates just how easy it is to unleash.
We are in the control room of the hardened silo, in a bunker designed to withstand all but a direct nuclear strike. I am invited to sit at the commander’s seat, with Margie occupying the deputy’s spot. A mock order comes in, and she quickly de-codes it. This order would tell us which of three pre-selected targets (even the silo commander doesn’t know what targets 1, 2, and 3 represent) we should select. We turn our keys together and hold them for four seconds. The rest of the process happens quickly. The countdown to launch begins and, less than a minute after receiving the order, our missile would be in the air if our controls had been anything but a game – or if the actual missile next door was fueled and/or armed.
The control room is full of awesome buttons visitors are not allowed to push. I was tempted, though!
I ask Margie a pointed question. “Could you actually have launched, knowing what the results would have been?” She responds that US nuclear policy was never to launch first, so she knows if the order came, it would have been in response to a nuclear strike on America. As a result, she says she absolutely could have and would have. Fortunately for Margie, the United States, and the world, that order never came. She believes it is the peace created through the deterrence of overwhelming destructive power that closed the Cold War without shots actually being fired between the United States and Soviet Union. Peace through deterrence. It seems like a crazy risk to take, to hold such potential devastation in the palm of a hand, but one that has paid off so far.
We exit the control room and move along a walkway into the silo itself. The missile stands 103 feet tall, and is an impressive sight! While it stands unfueled and with no warhead in its cap, it still appears as lethal as ever. With the advent of the solid-fueled Minuteman missile and its subsequent versions with multiple independently targeting warheads, the larger, more dangerous to service Titan II was rendered largely obsolete, and finally removed from service in 1987. However, the rocket remained in service until 2003, launching satellites into space from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.
This is it, the amazing Titan II missile. A photo doesn’t do justice to the size of it.
If you are going to be in southern Arizona, a visit to the Titan Missile Museum is an incredible look into the Cold War, the US missile program, and the mission of “peace through deterrence.”
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