Bill Sniffin: In World War III, Cheyenne Becomes Biggest Bulls-Eye In The World

Because Wyoming is the home base to 150 sites of ICBM nuclear-tipped missiles around the F. E. Warren Air Force Base in Cheyenne, our state capital would be one of the main targets of Russian missiles. 

Bill Sniffin

April 21, 20227 min read

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(Cowboy State Daily Staff)

By Bill Sniffin, publisher emeritus

A nuclear bulls-eye is focused smack on Wyoming’s state capital. Today, when madman Vladimir Putin is talking about sending Russian nuclear missiles to the USA, it can make you wonder about what you would do in such a scenario?

This is one of those “what if” columns. I want to believe that what I am writing about here is just not realistic . . . but? Sorry if this is so pessimistic, but I think Putin has gone off the rails. If he has, that could be very bad news for Wyoming. 

You can run, but you cannot hide during a nuclear attack. If Putin launches, the world as we know it could cease to exist. 

Because Wyoming is the home base to 150 sites of ICBM nuclear-tipped missiles around the F. E. Warren Air Force Base in Cheyenne, our state capital would be one of the main targets of Russian missiles. 

The prospect of world-wide Armageddon becomes real when folks realize Putin is becoming more paranoid as his ill-fated invasion of Ukraine looks worse all the time. If his own people rise up against him, could he set off a nuclear war as a last desperate act of a delusional dictator?  This could be the awful outcome of Putin’s horrible actions. Peaceful people all over the world are being drawn back to a Cold War time when such a conflagration was on most people’s minds. 

World leaders and Putin experts worry the Russian leader is leaning toward using nuclear weapons in his war with Ukraine. Once that tipping point occurs, the fear is that it could escalate to World War III.

And if such a nuclear war ensued, Wyoming could be one of Putin’s first targets. 

Recently Putin ordered his country’s deterrence forces to a special regime of duty. He warned the West if it intervened in the Ukraine war, “the consequences will be such as you have never seen in your entire history.” The message was clear. He has nukes and he is ready to use them. 

Russian Expert Fiona Hill said about the threat: “So, if anybody thinks Putin wouldn’t use something that he’s got, that is unusual and cruel, think again. Every time you think: ‘No, he won’t, would he?’ Well, yes, he would.”

Hill says mutual deterrence has kept the world safe for 70 years. But the flaw with a nuclear deterrence theory is that it depends on the people who possess nuclear weapons acting rationally. Hill says: “With Putin, there is evident visceral emotion in the things that he said in the past few weeks justifying the war in Ukraine. His pretext is completely flimsy and almost nonsensical.” 

In summary, the whole theory and practical application of deterrence (also called Mutual Assured Destruction) goes out the window when one of the players is not rational.  

The states of Wyoming, Colorado, Montana, South Dakota, and North Dakota are called ‘sponge sites,’ for their ability to absorb a nuclear attack. According to Tom Collina of Ploughshares Fund, the five states ability “to absorb a nuclear attack from Russia” is factored into the country’s ability to survive a nuclear attack. He says “while high population centers with huge cultural impact may seem like obvious choices, a smarter nuclear attack would focus on countering the enemy’s nuclear forces.”  This means the missile system at Warren AFB will be a main target. 

Some decades ago, we had our Lander newspaper cartoonist draw an illustration showing a map of the United States with a bulls-eye located in Cheyenne. This gave us an idea of where the former-Soviet Union (Russia) was aiming its missiles. It was assumed the Russians would want to cripple the ICBM (InterContinental Ballistic Missile) headquarters as a pre-emptive start of a nuclear war between the USA and the USSR. The message of that cartoon was that the rest of Wyomingites would bear a big brunt of that onslaught. 

Today, all those Cheyenne-based silos and those 150 missiles are getting a serious upgrade. The current facilities are decades old.

There are three sites, each with 150 launch silos. They include Warren in Cheyenne, Malmstrom in Great Falls, Montana, and the Air Force base in Minot, ND. 

Yes, it is time to re-boot this entire program and it looks like the price tag it will take involves eleven digits at $86,000,000,000. The project is now in the environmental review stage and the upgrade is hoped to be finished by 2030. Warren will be the first of the three bases to get the upgrade. 

Meanwhile, the threat of a pending nuclear war, thanks to Putin, are on peoples’ minds. 

To folks of a certain age, such a prospect brings back memories of our childhood when we had weekly Cold War drills in our schools. We were either shown how to hide under our desks or how much time it took to rush home. 

Charlie Smith of Lander recalls: “I lived in Richland, Washington, from 1946-53. Richland was the home of the Hanford nuclear plant–originally a town of about 300 that grew to 25,000 during the war.  

I very well remember bomb drills–crouching under desks and/or against walls–burying our heads between our knees. It was serious stuff for a child, and we knew it from an up-close and personal level.  My father had a high-level security job at Hanford, one that was a civilian continuation of his military job during WWII when he was assigned to the Manhattan Project.  

“My memory is even stronger when we learned in 1949 the Russians had stolen the atom bomb secrets. My parents’ conversations were solemn and serious. Even at age six their words were so alarming and frightening to me they became a permanent fixture of worry in my memory. Security was a huge deal in Richland.  

“Every time my father’s security clearance was up for renewal, we would have FBI agents parked down the block watching us. And all our neighbors were interviewed.   We knew with certainty spies were in Richland — perhaps in greater numbers than we suspected.   

“I thought it was cool for a kid, though, to see my father come home from work and take off his suit jacket and see he was packing heat–a revolver tucked away in a shoulder holster. It is because of that history, the bomb drills might have seemed goofy to many kids and adults elsewhere; to us they reflected reality.   We knew if there was an attack, we would be an important target.” 

Back in the 1950s, the Strategic Air Command Base in Omaha would have been the #1 target for the old Soviet Union. My wife Nancy lived in Harlan, Iowa, which was downwind from Omaha. She recalls school officials timing the students on how long it took them to rush home after during a missile drill. 

I grew up in eastern Iowa and my dad would round up me and my brothers and take us to huge silica mines near Clayton on the banks of the Mississippi River. We would work with other folks storing huge barrels of fresh water and cases of a product called survival crackers. This would be the best place to hide in that part of the world during a nuclear attack. The mines were huge with a capacity to hold 44,000 people. It was 60 acres in size and had 14 miles of tunnels.

Out here in Wyoming, I assumed our whole state would be toast because of F. E. Warren, but not so. Maps created by Survival Freedom shows a big area near my home town of Lander that could be among the few places in the country that might provide a survivable habitat. 

I guess that is a puddle of good news amidst a whole ocean of bad news in the world right now. 

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Bill Sniffin

Wyoming Life Columnist

Columnist, author, and journalist Bill Sniffin writes about Wyoming life on Cowboy State Daily -- the state's most-read news publication.