The stretch of Interstate 80 between Cheyenne, Wyo., and Lincoln, Neb., is straight and flat. High plains stretch out on either side.
But scattered along this unremarkable road, the Air Force keeps some of its most powerful weapons — Minuteman III nuclear missiles.
Outsiders are rarely allowed to see the missiles up close. But in the aftermath of a scandal earlier this year, the Air Force has allowed some media, including NPR, a rare glimpse at America's nuclear deterrence.
Traveling to the missile fields isn't done by helicopter or Humvee. Instead, we're riding in a Ford Taurus with 168,000 miles on it.
"It's our chariot," says Lt. Raj Bansal, of the Air Force's 90th Missile Wing, with a chuckle. Capt. Joseph Shannon, riding shotgun, is quick to chime in: "The key is to get us there safely," he says.
Shannon and Bansal are on their way out for a shift, or "alert" as it's known in the missile business. For the next 24 hours they will be responsible for 10 nuclear weapons. They will oversee security and maintenance. And if the order comes, they will launch these warheads within a matter of minutes (the exact time it takes is classified).
Will they ever get a coded message from the president ordering them to unleash their weapons?
"I think it's something everybody thinks about when they get the job," Bansal says. "I mean you're basically eating most of your meals when you're on alert next to the keys and switches that would cause that act."
"That act" — it's hard for even these officers to discuss a nuclear exchange. And, these days, most Americans don't talk about it at all. Bansal's friends know where he works but don't have a clue what he does.
"A lot of them are like, 'Hey, why are you complaining? You don't really do anything,' " he says.
There is some truth in that: Nuclear deterrence is, at its heart, a job of inaction. These two train constantly to launch a massive nuclear strike at a moment's notice. But they're unlikely to ever get that order.
Shannon sees it differently. "I wouldn't say our job is not to do something; the job of deterrence is actually working. Adversaries know that the missiles are there — they're in place and they will be used," he says. "If that's sitting in the back of their mind, they won't do certain actions to cause them to be used."
And in practice, keeping the missiles on alert is a grueling task. Front-line crews can be on 24-hour alert twice a week. They also spend days being trained and tested on procedures. Until recently, the Air Force has kept staffing to a minimum, so crew members often were called in for extra shifts. Add in the lengthy drives to and from these remote bases, and these officers can spend more than a week on the job. Shannon has missed his daughter's recitals. Bansal has spent holidays underground.
We pull off the highway and turn left. Past Dix, Neb., the road turns to gravel. Eventually we arrive at what looks like just another ranch house.
At the gate, we're greeted by Tech. Sgt. Raymond Kaiser. "Mr. Brumfiel: Status? Are you under any form of duress?" he asks me. The question seems odd in the empty flatlands of western Nebraska.
Kaiser is responsible for maintaining the aboveground portion of this command center. It looks surprisingly comfortable inside: There are a pool table, a workout room and television. This is where a cook, support staff and a heavily armed security force live.
The controls to the missiles themselves are 60 feet underground.
We pass through a final checkpoint and open the door to the elevator. At the entrance they've added a decorative touch: a giant mural of Mario, the cartoon plumber from the video game. At the bottom, Mario stands next to a mushroom cloud. Missile crews are known for their dark humor.
"Stand clear!" yells Bansal as he pulls open an enormous, 2-foot-thick blast door, 8 tons of solid steel.
On the other side, Lt. Kirsten Clark and her deputy are just finishing up their shift in "the capsule," as crews call it. The room is hollowed out, like a concrete egg. In the middle, suspended on shock absorbers, hangs the launch control center, a room within a room. It's long and narrow, with a bed at one end and a toilet at the other. In between, two chairs face computer displays.
Clark hands over her command to Shannon. No security or maintenance in progress. "We've got television working today for once," she adds.
TV is allowed down here. Crews have long periods of downtime where they still have to keep alert, especially at night.
"Usually I like movies, because they make the time go by faster; sometimes I watch the Cooking Channel or the news," she says. Last night Mulan II was on. Clark also spent time reviewing top-secret procedures for her weapons.
With the handover complete, Bansal and Shannon are now the final link in a system stretching from the president of the United States to these missiles.
The missiles themselves are displayed in a grid on the computer console.
"This is actually gaining status from 10 nuclear missiles, which is kind of crazy to think about — I mean, when you've been at this screen from 80-something alerts, you kind of lose sight of what it actually is," he says.
Each missile is just a tiny rectangle on the screen. It makes the enormousness of the job seem small and abstract. And maybe the people asked to do this need it that way; to let them get on with the day-to-day of keeping the weapons ready.
"There's no emotional thoughts going into this; it's our job and this is what we're going to do," Shannon says. "Now if we're topside actually seeing things, I think that's totally different. But down here, this is what we see, something on the screen, and that's it."
Shannon and Bansal settle in for their alert. At its heart, this is what nuclear deterrence comes down to: two officers, 60 feet underground. Working, watching movies, and waiting.
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Fifty years ago, the idea of nuclear war was so terrifying, the best way to comment on it was to make fun of it.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DR. STRANGELOVE OR: HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE THE BOMB")
PETER SELLERS: (As Dr. Strangelove) I'm not saying we wouldn't get our hair mussed, but I do say no more than ten to twenty million killed - tops.
SHAPIRO: "Dr. Strangelove," the 1964 film, is a dark comedy about the Cold War. Today, the threat seems more remote. Still - some men and women keep America ready for nuclear war. They're the officers with a finger on the button. And they've learned to live with this grave responsibility. To see what the job is like, NPR's Geoff Brumfiel got a ride to a remote nuclear command bunker in Nebraska.
GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: Some most powerful weapons in the U.S. military can be found just off of the Interstate-80.
(SOUNDBITE OF ENGINE STARTING)
CAPTAIN JOSEPH SHANNON: Taking these vehicles out on long distances - they have a lot of miles on them right now. So, we want to make sure we're safe before driving out.
BRUMFIEL: That's Captain Joseph Shannon of the Air Force's 90th missile wing. The missiles are scattered along the highways and back roads of Wyoming, Nebraska and Colorado. Captain Shannon is about to take command of 10 weapons for a 24-hour shift. Even his drive to the site is done by the book.
SHANNON: So you check the oil, make sure the battery looks good and check all the belts and what not.
(SOUNDBITE OF CAR HOOD SLAMMING)
BRUMFIEL: We climb into this Ford Taurus with 168,000 miles on it.
SHANNON: It's 11-6 departing for foxtrot 0-1. Lieutenant Bansal's the driver.
LIEUTENANT RAJ BANSAL: It's going to be about an hour and a half.
BRUMFIEL: Lieutenant Raj Bansal is the second member of this two-man crew. Bansal is fresh out of college in the Air Force's ROTC program. Now he's trained to launch nuclear armed missiles. He wonders if that order will ever come.
BANSAL: I think it's something everybody thinks about when they get the job. I mean, you're basically eating most of your meals when you're on alert next to the keys and switches that would cause that act.
BRUMFIEL: That act - it's hard for even these officers to discuss a nuclear exchange. And these days, most Americans don't talk about it at all. Lieutenant Bansal's friends know where he works, but they don't really have a clue what he does.
BANSAL: A lot of them are like - hey, well, why are you complaining? You don't really do anything. (Laughing)
BRUMFIEL: And that is the strange thing about nuclear deterrence. These two train constantly to launch a massive nuclear strike at a moment's notice. Their job is centered around being able to carry out that one order - an order they'll probably never get. Though that's not exactly how Captain Shannon sees it.
SHANNON: Yeah, I wouldn't say our job is not to do something. The job of deterrence is actually working. Adversaries know that the missiles are here. They're in place. And they will be used. If it's sitting in the back of their mind, they won't do certain actions to cause them to be used.
BRUMFIEL: To make the weapons harder to destroy in a nuclear war, the missiles and the bunkers controlling them are scattered across the countryside past Dix, Nebraska.
SHANNON: Nine times out of ten you drive through these little towns you never see one person.
BRUMFIEL: The road turns to gravel - high prairie in every direction. Eventually, we arrive at what looks like just another ranch house.
SERGEANT RAYMOND KAISER: Please pay attention. I, Tech Sergeant Kaiser, will be your escort official during your visit. As your escort official, I'm required to brief escorted personnel on applicable security and safety rules before entry into this restricted area.
BRUMFIEL: Sergeant Raymond Kaiser is responsible for maintaining the above-ground portion of this command center. It's home to a cook and support staff, as well as a heavily armed security force.
KAISER: If you see something marked with a danger tag, please do not approach it. Please do not touch it.
BRUMFIEL: Most of the missiles themselves are 60 feet underground.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: And just one last check - no unauthorized electronic devices.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Door is open.
BRUMFIEL: And at the entrance to the elevator, they've added a decorative touch - a giant mural of the cartoon plumber from the videogame Mario. The elevator is an old one with a lattice gate instead of a door.
(SOUNDBITE OF ELEVATOR DOOR)
BRUMFIEL: Through it you can see motifs from Super Mario Brothers all the way down - coins, flowers. At the bottom, Mario stands next to a mushroom cloud. Lieutenant Bansal opens an enormous two-foot-thick blast door - eight tons of steel.
BANSAL: Stand clear.
(SOUNDBITE OF WOOSH OF AIR)
LIEUTENANT KIRSTEN CLARK: Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. Welcome to level eight of Super Mario World. I'm Lieutenant Clark, your guide.
BRUMFIEL: Kirsten Clark and her deputy are just finishing their 24-hour alert down here in the bunker - the capsule, as crews call it. The room is hollowed out like a concrete egg. In the middle, suspended on shock absorbers, hangs the launch control center - a room within a room. It's long and narrow with a bed at one end and a toilet at the other. In between, two chairs face computer displays. Lieutenant Clark hands over her command to Captain Shannon.
SHANNON: Security situations in progress?
CLARK: There are no security situations in progress.
SHANNON: Maintenance in progress or scheduled?
SHANNON: All right. And anything else helpful?
CLARK: Let's see. We've got televisions working today for once.
BRUMFIEL: TV is allowed down here. Crews have long periods of downtime where they still have to keep alert, especially at night.
CLARK: Usually, I like movies 'cause they make the time go by faster. Sometimes I watch the cooking channel or the news.
BRUMFIEL: Handover complete- Lieutenant Bansal and Captain Shannon are now the final link in a system stretching from the President of the United States to these missiles.
BANSAL: And basically at this point in the day, we'd start our inspections. Since we have assumed responsibility for this alert, it's our responsibility to make sure that all the equipment is functioning as it was briefed to us.
BRUMFIEL: Life down in the capsule can be busy - maintenance crews and security forces are coordinated from here. Communication is constantly kept up with U.S. strategic command, which would issue the president's launch order. The missiles themselves are displayed in a grid on the computer console.
BANSAL: This is actually gaining status from 10 nuclear missiles, which is kind of crazy to think about. I mean, when you've been staring at the screen for about 80-some alerts, you kind of lose sight of what it actually is.
BRUMFIEL: Each missile is just a tiny rectangle on the screen. It makes the enormity of this job seem small and abstract. And maybe the people we're asking to do this need it that way to let them get on with the day-to-day of keeping the weapons ready. Captain Shannon.
SHANNON: There's no emotional thoughts going into this. It's our job and this is what we're going to do. Now, if we're topside actually seeing things, you know, I think that's totally different. But down here, you don't get the visual. I mean, this is what we see - something on the screen and that's it.
BRUMFIEL: It's been a half-a-century since Dr. Strangelove's dark depiction of nuclear war. But in the capsule it still feels like 1964. The old telephone handsets, toggle switches and dials marked launch. It could be a set in Dr. Strangelove.
BANSAL: I have it with me. (Laughing)
BRUMFIEL: You have Dr. Strangelove with you?
BANSAL: Uh-huh. (Laughing)
BRUMFIEL: This is what nuclear deterrence comes down to - two officers 60-feet underground - working, watching old movies and waiting.
(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE RINGING)
BANSAL: Capsule, Lieutenant Bansal.
BRUMFIEL: The lieutenant has work to do. It's time for us to head back to the world above.
(SOUNDBITE OF ELEVATOR)
BRUMFIEL: Captain Shannon and Lieutenant Bansal are sealed in their capsule below. Geoff Brumfiel, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
SHAPIRO: And tomorrow we'll look to the future of these nuclear missiles - whether they're still relevant or should be retired. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.