HILL AIR FORCE BASE — A huge chunk of money is coming to Utah — tens of billions of dollars and thousands of jobs — and it planted the state right in the middle of a great debate: Does the nation need to spend so much money for a new generation of nuclear missiles?
There's also a deeper question looming over the debate: Is the Utah project the best way — and the safest way — to prepare for the possibility of World War III?
It all revolves around hundreds of underground missile silos in five states that dot the Northern Great Plains like a pincushion. They have been home to the nation's front-line nuclear weapon ever since the Minuteman missile got the go-ahead from President Dwight Eisenhower's administration in the 1950s. The missiles were upgraded to Minuteman 3 in the 1970s under President Richard Nixon, but in the subsequent half-century, there has been only modest updating to the missiles and control systems.
"We have a 50-year-old weapons system trying to defend against 21st-century threats," said Greg Manuel, Northrop Grumman's vice president, and general manager for strategic deterrent systems.
Northrop Grumman has an exclusive federal contract to rebuild the silos and control systems in Montana, North Dakota, Wyoming, Colorado and Nebraska. In Utah, the company will also produce a brand-new fleet of 400 ICBMs, intercontinental ballistic missiles, that were designed to carry atomic warheads deep into enemy territory.
"You can't indefinitely life-extend anything," Adm. Charles Richard, commander of the U.S. Strategic Command, said at a recent Pentagon briefing.
It's very old technology and, now and then, you have to replace things that are that old.
–Sen. Mitt Romney
Richard described the Minuteman 3 missiles as fully reliable today, but he defended the replacement program. He said it doesn't make sense to keep using minor upgrades to extend the life of the old missiles.
"There's a point where it becomes not cost-effective to do that," he said. "And there's another point out there where it's not possible at all."
Echoing that sentiment, Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, said, "It's very old technology and, now and then, you have to replace things that are that old."
Already, preparations for the missile project are highly visible along the fence line of Hill Air Force Base. Northrop Grumman has a large construction project underway — five new buildings for engineering and testing. The missiles themselves are still in the planning and design phase.
Northrop Grumman will actually build the missiles, although not the nuclear warheads, at the old Thiokol rocket works in Box Elder County. After warheads are attached elsewhere, the 400 missiles will be deployed in the silos on the Great Plains.
This all means new jobs for Northrop Grumman, lots of them.
"Here in northern Utah, we'll generate about 5,000 jobs," Manuel said. "We have about 1,300 today, and we're hiring about 100 a month."
The price tag is enormous. It's officially $95 billion, but some critics said it could be much higher.
"The critics of the program are up in arms about how much the thing costs," said Henry Sokolski, executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center.
Sokolski spent most of his career working on nuclear policy issues, mostly from a conservative, and often a Republican, point of view. He's concerned himself about the cost. He thinks top Pentagon officials are also uncomfortable with the price tag and are actively seeking ways to bring it down.
Anti-nuclear activist Gail Blattenberger, an emeritus professor of economics at the University of Utah, said spending billions on the new missiles is like funding a "bridge to nowhere."
"We're spending this huge amount of money for something we don't need and it's of no benefit," she said.
The cost is worth it, according to freshman congressman, Rep. Blake Moore, R-Utah.
"When you're investing in something that's creating jobs, modernizing our technology, there's a lot of positive benefits that come from this," he said. "And so it's an overall net positive."
"Keeping the nation safe from nuclear attack, in my opinion, is probably as high a priority as we possibly could have," he said.
The debate about dollars is only part of the controversy, and perhaps the least important part. A bigger question is whether ground-based missiles, ready to fire on a few minute's notice, make the nation safer or less safe.
For two-thirds of a century, nuclear nations based their strategy on so-called "mutual deterrence." Each side knows that if one side triggers a nuclear war, the other side will retaliate; both sides will be destroyed.
The U.S. has long relied on what's often called the nuclear triad — three different weapons systems in bombers, submarines, and silos, each with enough atomic firepower to assure our enemies we will always be able to retaliate.
"Through the three legs of the triad, it creates an opportunity for diplomacy," Manuel said. "It creates an opportunity to ensure deterrence."
The ground-based missiles are a crucial part of the triad, Moore argued, "making sure that we're overall safer because of it."
He said he is personally convinced that it's kept us out of wars.
"Yes, I am," Moore said. "The ability to have a strong presence, that 'don't mess with us' kind of presence, will reduce conflict, and I think we've seen that over time."
Some experts, including Sokolski, said that thinking is no longer valid for ground-based missiles. Electronic targeting is now so precise and accurate, they said, a determined enemy might be able to wipe out all 400 missiles in a few minutes.
"Back in the '60s," Sokolski said, "those reinforced silos were so hard, and the Soviet missiles aimed at them were so inaccurate, that they could ride out an attack. But that's not likely to be the case now."
That possibility of an enemy sneak-attack on ground-based missiles leads critics to one the most feared scenarios of the nuclear age: If there's a warning of enemy attack, critics fear, U.S. leaders might be tempted to strike first in a "launch-on warning" or "use 'em or lose 'em" strategy. That could trigger a nuclear war, even if the warning is a false alarm.
"It's too easy to make mistakes, and that has definitely happened a lot," Blattenberger said.
Richard recently testified that such a policy does not exist.
"He's been clear that we do not have a launch-on-warning policy here in the United States and never have had one," said Manuel.
That may be a hollow reassurance, Sokolski suggested.
"In private," he said, "I get people telling me that, of course, that's our policy."
Sokolski thinks a better deterrent might be to base missiles in concealed locations instead of known silo locations. The military could move them around unpredictably in underground tunnels so the enemy wouldn't know how to target them.
Supporters of missiles in silos think that the whole nightmare scenario is not as worrisome as critics suggested. They argue that an enemy would be highly unlikely to try a nuclear knockout with a surprise first strike.
"It would almost take a double-strike on each particular one of all the silos that exist," Moore said. "It would be very, very difficult to do that."
The debate, in some form, has been going on almost as long as the U.S. has had nuclear missiles.
It's likely that Utah's huge role will remain controversial, as long as the money, defense contracts and jobs keep flowing.