By Scott Shephard
Anyone looking at this photo, taken a week or two ago, might think it is a photo of a little, poorly maintained rectangular park in the middle of a field. And anyone who has driven west out of Pierre along Highway 14 towards Rapid City, SD, has driven by several of these.
But they aren't parks. They are decommissioned Minuteman II missile silos. The area in the middle is where the missile silo used to be. At one time there were 150 of these sites spread out over 13,500 square miles in Western South Dakota. Each missile contained a 1.2 megaton nuclear warhead, which is equivalent to the explosive effect of 1.2 million tons of TNT. If a standard pickup truck can hold 1/2 ton of cargo, it would take 2.4 million such trucks full of TNT to have the equivalent effect of the single warhead that was housed in this location. Put another way, each one of these missiles would have been about 800 times more destructive than the warhead the US dropped on Hiroshima (16 kilotons).
It would take about 6 minutes for one of these missiles to reach Moscow, a presumed target during the Cold War. And, or course, each one of these silos was no doubt a target for a corresponding Soviet missile. In the parlance of nuclear war experts, all of these silos were "lightning rods." The "game" would have been for the Russians to hit our missile silos before our president gave the order to get them out of the ground. Sounds like a fun game, doesn't it? If both countries got all of their warheads launched, the term for that was MAD, which stands for "Mutual Assured Destruction."
"So why western South Dakota?" you might ask. The answer is that the missiles were maintained by crews from Ellsworth Air Force Base on the eastern edge of the Black Hills. More importantly, there weren't many people living in the 13,500 square mile area of the South Dakota missile field. Yes, people would have died. But, again in parlance of military experts, those people would have been "acceptable losses." All of this is one of the reasons that at the height of the Cold War in the 70s and 80s South Dakota was one of the 10 most dangerous places to live in the event of a nuclear war.
But, fellow South Dakotans, breath a sigh of relief: the missiles are all gone and we are safer because of it. But before you celebrate too much, you should know that the US still has 6800 nuclear warheads with much more efficient delivery systems than the Minuteman II. Russia has 7000. North Korea has 10, though that number will no doubt change. And they are working hard on delivery systems . . . .
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