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Waltzing at the End of the World

It’s hard to imagine celebrating nuclear war planning, but that’s what was on the agenda at Hill Air Force Base, near Ogden, Utah last Thurs., Feb. 12.

At an official awards ceremony, there were prizes for “top performers” at the base including Team of the Year, Volunteer of the Year and Key Spouse of the Year. Base commander, Col. Ron Jolly, said, “The Airmen here see the big picture and know that it is … about providing support to Team Hill.”

What is “Team Hill”? At one-million acres and 20,000 personnel, Hill AFB is tasked with maintaining and testing the “reliability” of, among other things, the country’s 450 Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles or ICBMs. The 60-foot-tall, 39-ton rockets, with 335-kiloton nuclear warheads (think Hiroshima, times 22), can fly 6,000 to 7,000 miles before detonating on targets chosen by the Global Strike Command (its real name) in Omaha.

Hill AFB’s “state of the art” test facility conducts exams of “nuclear hardness, survivability, reliability” … “nuclear radiation, air blast, shock and vibration” and “electromagnetic pulse.” These are the effects of nuclear weapons detonations, and the base keeps our ICBMs “reliable” — that is ready-to-launch from bunkers across North Dakota, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado and Nebraska.

In ballistic missile terms, “reliability” means the guarantee that radioactive firestorms covering 40-square-miles-per-warhead can be unleashed a world away using rockets launched with the turn of a key. (Students of history used to say that in World War II the German perpetrators of the Holocaust delivered victims to the crematoria, and that now missiles carry crematoria to the victims.)

In April 2014, military teams still doing their Cold War duty — 26 years after the war ended — were given fresh encouragement when Hill AFB handed out its “Brent Scowcroft Awards.” They went to hard working personnel in the “Launch and Test Team” and to others working in maintenance, logistics, acquisition and something called “sustainment.”

The prize is named after Lt. Gen. Brent Scowcroft, who at the height of Cold War hostilities led a Reagan-era commission that recommended increased spending on ICBMs. The 1983 Scowcroft Commission recommended “a land-based force with a significant, prompt hard target kill capability.”

The euphemism “hard target kill” refers to H-bombs accurate enough to destroy another country’s missiles in bunkers before they are launched — a nuclear “first-strike.” This is what Minuteman III missiles can now accomplish and what they now threaten, 24/7, with their Mark 12A warheads. Scowcroft’s commission advised the Air Force to develop single-warhead missiles, which is exactly what our arsenal of Minuteman IIIs has become.

Like scandal-ridden “missileers” in their boring, dead-ended launch sites around Malmstrom Air Base, FE Warren Air Base and Minot AFB, Team Hill prepares and polishes the machinery of nuclear holocaust. Its ICBM System Program Office has “real” Minuteman missile “launch facilities and launch control center facilities.” Hill’s Nuclear Weapons Center “develops, acquires and supports silo-based ICBMs…manage spares…sustains silo-based ICBM systems” and it buys “spare parts, services, and repairs” for “Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) programs and ammunitions.”

Two years ago, Hill awarded a $90-million contract to a Cincinnati firm to build a new truck for hauling the giant ICBMs. The truck, called a “transporter erector,” installs and transports the rockets. According to the Air Base, it “will serve the Minuteman III ICBM through 2035.”

But what about the Peace Prize President’s “world free of nuclear weapons”? The Most Powerful Man can’t even close a small, relatively new, off-shore penal colony at Guantanamo. To even challenge — much less cut back — the trillion-dollar nuclear war budget, the Prez would need a grass-roots anti-nuke rebellion and the fearlessness of MLK.

Meanwhile, the bureaucrats, attendants and supporters who plan and practice the unspeakable are so desensitized, distracted or benumbed, that at Team Hill’s Feb. 12 gala, “well-known local civic leaders and special guests presented the awards.” One event committee co-chair said, “We really wanted our award nominees to feel like celebrities.” The Public Affairs office boasted of “valet parking, interviews on the ‘red carpet,’ hors d’oeuvres, a string quartet and dancing.”

It’s past time to admit this behavior is deranged and to declare the nuclear war party over. The question isn’t how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, but how many “key spouses” can waltz atop 450 loaded ICBMs.

John LaForge works for Nukewatch, edits its Quarterly newsletter and lives on the Plowshares Land Trust near Luck, Wisc.

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John LaForge is a Co-director of Nukewatch, a peace and environmental justice group in Wisconsin, and edits its newsletter.

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