Lethality

Underground Missile Dwellers

Nov. 2, 2018 | BY Brad Kimberly

It’s 7:30 a.m. at F.E. Warren Air Force Base, Wyoming, on a chilly October day. Just a few days earlier, six inches of snow fell on the base, but at the start of Air Force 1st Lt. Gordon Lam’s shift, the roads are clear and the skies are sunny.

A member of the 320th Missile Squadron, Lam’s about to begin a 24-hour shift as a missile alert officer deep underground in the middle of nowhere. This is his day.

The predeparture briefing is running about 30 minutes late due to unusually heavy traffic at the base’s main gate. Once all the officers assigned to the next alert shift arrive, the briefing begins. Five two-person teams sit at the conference table and go over the mission for the next day. They discuss the weather and risks to the mission, among other things. When the conversation gets to Lam and his crew commander, Air Force 1st Lt. Allison Riffle, the only risk to the mission mentioned is a Defense.gov camera crew joining them for part of the day. To alleviate that risk, Lam and Riffle settle on a plan to turn over control of their missiles to another team while the camera crew is on site.

Two Air Force missileers look over a map.
Map Review
Air Force 1st Lt. Gordon Lam and Capt. Ana Garzon look over a map before departing to their missile alert facility at F.E. Warren Air Force Base, Wyo., Oct. 19, 2018. DOD photo by Brad Kimberly
Photo By: Brad Kimberly, DOD
VIRIN: 181019-D-EE902-002

Each team departs from the meeting and heads toward their vehicles. It’s a two-hour drive for the lieutenants to reach their missile alert facility, and security there is very strict. Something as simple as a typo on a form can delay access to the facility for several hours.

Lam and Riffle grab a hot meal from the facility’s chef and head down to relieve the previous alert officers. After the handoff of responsibilities is made, the previous shift heads home.

The launch control center, commonly called the “capsule” by missileers, is about 60-70 feet underground, and outside electronics, such as cell phones, are not allowed. They are focused on waiting for a call they hope never comes, but they are 100 percent committed to launching nuclear missiles if the order does come.

01:17

“We train to execute every single time we go in,” said Air Force Capt. Ana Garzon, a code controller for the 90th Operations Support Squadron. “If we get into the scenario, it’s just going to be automatic. We’re not even going to have to think about it. It’s just going to be like, ‘This is what we got. We’ve got the message. We’re authenticating. We’re good.’ And we’re just going to do our mission.”

Emergency action messages can come at any time, and Defense.gov’s visit to the capsule emphasized this point. Within 15 seconds of entering the capsule to figure out where the camera for the video would be placed, an “EAM” came through. The team was given a polite, but firm, “everybody needs to get out” and was escorted above ground.

Over the course of their shift, the missile crew has alternating rest periods, but at least one of the officers is always awake and monitoring the launch systems. If an alert comes in, day or night, the missile crew springs into action.

An Air Force missileer talks on a launch control center communication system.
Control Center Communication
Air Force 1st Lts. Gordon Lam and Allison Riffle, both assigned to the 320th Missile Squadron at F.E. Warren Air Force Base, Wyoming, use a launch control center communications system while on their missile alert shift.
Photo By: Air Force Staff Sgt. Neal Uranga, DOD
VIRIN: 181019-D-AS331-003

Never has a missileer been ordered to launch a live nuclear-armed LGM-30 Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile against an adversary, and this alert shift was no different.

After 24 hours isolated from the world in a capsule deep underground, they still have a two-hour drive ahead of them before heading home. Adapting back to a fully connected world after an alert shift sometimes comes with surprises.

“When I got topside, I got a message from my sister, and she just had her son,” Lam said. “So, I was an uncle.”

As the work to protect the United States with a nuclear arsenal at the ready continues with another team, Lam and Riffle end their day. They will pick up this duty again in another day or two.