Dave Simpson: Please, Spare Us The Swashbuckling

Columnist Dave Simpson writes: "Years ago, I asked some off-duty airmen if they could turn the keys required to launch nuclear missiles, and one said, 'By the time I get that order, I figure my girlfriend is already dead and my stereo is toast. So yes, I could.'

Dave Simpson

March 29, 20224 min read

Dave Simpson headshot
(Cowboy State Daily Staff)

Out here in missile silo country, the saber rattling going on lately is enough to rattle a guy.

One poll last week showed that 30 percent of us want our country to do more to intercede in Ukraine, even if it risks nuclear war with Russia.

Nuclear war.

From where I live east of Cheyenne, we could get in my pickup, head north and east, and probably drive by a dozen missile silos before lunch. Maybe more. F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Cheyenne maintains 150 nuclear-tipped missiles. Another 300 are located in South Dakota and Montana.

There’s not much to see – just about an acre of ground, surrounded by an imposing chain link fence, menacing warning signs advising that deadly force is authorized, a massive concrete lid, and an antenna in the shape of the Washington Monument. That’s about it.

When they were constructed in the 1960s, the concept was “hiding in plain sight.” Most folks don’t notice what they’re driving by.  You can see one just off 1-25 at the Bordeaux exit up near Wheatland. And in Potter, Nebraska, there’s one right next to an exit off I-80.

Poke around one of these sites and it won’t be long before heavily-armed military police arrive in an armored car. Maybe a helicopter, too.

“Missile Alert Facilities,” which each control 10 missiles in silos, are just as innocuous. They look like ranch houses, with a barn. A deactivated launch control facility near Chugwater on I-25 has been turned into a state museum, telling the story of our ground-based missile defense.

On television last week, Rep. Maria Salazar of Florida – a Republican – told Tucker Carlson she heartily supports ramping up our intervention in Ukraine, including a possible “no fly zone.”

Carlson asked her if she knew how many nuclear weapons the Russians have. She didn’t know, replying “many,” but was nevertheless ready to risk nuclear war with Russia. Russia has about 6,000 nuclear weapons. We have about 7,000. And many of those nuclear weapons are around 30 times more powerful than the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Do the math, and it’s not hard to come to the conclusion that all-out nuclear war could wipe out life as we know it on this planet.

Still willing to roll the dice on direct American intervention in Ukraine? Still like the idea of American and Russian pilots in dogfights? Given much thought about what that could lead to? We are all appalled by the carnage unleashed in Ukraine by the war criminal Putin, but would millions of deaths in an all-out nuclear exchange be preferable?

Years ago, at the bar at Little America in Cheyenne, I talked to some off-duty airmen who manned launch control facilities near Cheyenne. I asked if they could turn the keys required to launch nuclear missiles, and one said, “By the time I get that order, I figure my girlfriend is already dead and my stereo is toast. So yes, I could.”

Living close to the missiles is everyday life in Cheyenne. We often see long, armed convoys, with two helicopters flying overhead, heading out to maintain the nuclear missiles to our north and east, then making their way back.

With Warren Air Force Base in town, and all those missile silos spread out over the Wyoming and Nebraska prairie, it isn’t a stretch to think we would be a prime target in an all-out nuclear exchange. It wouldn’t be shocking images from Ukraine on a television screen. The carnage could easily be right here. If things get out of hand.

Some experts say we’re living at the most dangerous time since the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, with a nuclear-armed war criminal on the loose. And yet it’s business as usual here in Cheyenne, with a building boom, a busy state capital, and worries more centered on gasoline prices than war. You don’t hear much about the threat of nuclear annihilation.

When the saber rattlers talk tough, and vow to up the ante with with Russia, listen carefully. And maybe ask if, unlike that congresswoman from Florida, they know how many nuclear warheads we’re talking about.

And what talking tough might ultimately entail.

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Dave Simpson

Political, Wyoming Life Columnist

Dave has written a weekly column about a wide variety of topics for 39 years, winning top columnist awards in Wyoming, Colorado, Illinois and Nebraska.