Driving cross-country on my trip to photograph my father’s buildings, I am experimenting with time-lapse photography. Beside me, on the passenger seat, is a camera snapping a picture of the road ahead every second. In western Wyoming, with great cumulus clouds scudding overhead, I listen to medieval music: Perceval: la quête du Graal (The Quest for the Grail). It hits me that I am also searching for a grail. But the grail I am seeking is un-holy: Not a sacred chalice but an underground silo, engineered by Paul Weidlinger and his team, as a container for the deadliest weapon of mass destruction.
The defining doctrine of the Cold War was Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) It assumes that each side has enough nuclear weaponry to destroy the other side; and that either side, if attacked for any reason by the other, would retaliate with equal or greater force.
Albert Wohlstetter, a friend of Paul’s at the Rand Corporation, persuaded him to begin work on structures that could withstand the shockwave of a nuclear blast. Super-hardened missile silos were needed to ensure Second Strike Capability.
The United State’s most powerful weapon, the MX “Peacekeeper” missile, was tested and deployed in the 1980s. It had a speed of 15,000 miles per hour, a range of 7,000 miles, and was capable of delivering ten independently targeted warheads. This weapon was so threatening that the Soviet Union could justify targeting up to ten of its own warheads against each MX missile. How could the U.S. protect itself against such an onslaught?
A silo that could withstand the impact of a nuclear strike was the “grail” of defense research and development that Weidlinger Associates focused on. One concept was to protect silos with giant, concrete slabs supported by dashpots, a kind of hydraulic spring that would compress in response to a blast, thereby dissipating some of its force. The mathematics behind the engineering was so complex that solutions only became conceivable with the advent of computers.
Listen to what engineers Eve Hinman and Nancy Buscemi have to say about working for my father.
Missile Silos from Arc Light Digital Media on Vimeo.
I learned that fifty MX missiles were placed in silos in the rangeland north of Warren Air Force Base in Cheyenne, Wyoming. This is how I happened to be driving through the state listening to medieval music and looking for traces of my father’s work. I found the coordinates of one of the silos on the Internet. My smart phone helped me navigate to Site P5 in a hayfield about 20 miles northeast of Cheyenne.
See what I found, then read on for an explanation.
The Grail from Arc Light Digital Media on Vimeo.
At P5 I was expecting to find awesome evidence of Weidlinger’s engineering skills. Never mind that the MX missiles are all gone, decommissioned in 2004 in response to the SALT II treaty. But I do not find the grail. The silos are still there but they are not Weidlinger silos.
Though some tests were conducted with conventional explosives, the silos that Paul, Eve, and Nanci and many others worked on were never built. As the tensions of the Cold War lessened in the 80s, the cost of nuclear weapons development seemed less justifiable.
The silos that my father developed were just one part of an elaborate, theoretical shell game that spanned thirty years. In one scenario missiles would be randomly shuttled along an underground railroad between alternate launch sites. In another the silos would be invisible from the air, covered by a layer of soil that the missiles would burst through when launched. A third solution was the “dense pack” – placing missile silos intentionally close together with the questionable assumption that incoming Soviet warheads would be neutralized by “fratricide” (the tendency of nearby nuclear explosions to damage other warheads). The fourth solution was super-hardened silos that could conceivably withstand a near hit. As far as I know none of these solutions were ever deployed.
On the other hand, the MX missiles were actually completed and we needed a place to put them. What I found in Wyoming was the Air Force’s solution; to house the missiles in old existing, repurposed Minuteman silos. It was one of these that I filmed. In the end it (and fifty others) was completely vulnerable to Soviet attack.