Tucson’s Titanic Warheads

Douglas TowneNovember 1, 2018
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For two decades beginning in 1963, Tucson was ringed by 18 missile silos with enough combined might to trigger a nuclear apocalypse.

The Cold War was sizzling when Yvonne Morris commanded a U.S. Air Force crew operating a Titan II intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) site near Tucson in the early 1980s. The nation was engaged in a chess game of mutual annihilation with the Soviet Union. Each incoming message to the drab, green, underground bunker with its panels of blinking consoles was a gut-check for the crew: Was it an order to launch an ICBM that carried a nuclear warhead? Yet Morris, one of the first women in the demanding job, was unperturbed. “I slept well, better than I do now, because I was part of a clearly defined mission – peace through deterrence – against a clearly defined enemy,” she says. “If we received a launch order, that meant that my friends and family were dead, or soon would be.”

During much of the Cold War, Tucson’s Davis-Monthan Air Force Base operated a lethal arsenal of 18 Titan IIs in underground silos. The ICBMs, targeted at sites in the former Soviet Union, had a retaliatory strike mission. The silos were protected with 760-ton steel doors to withstand all but direct detonation and still be able to launch missiles. The Titan IIs carried a W-53 nuclear warhead with a 9-megaton yield capable of decimating a 900-square-mile area – the most potent in the U.S. arsenal. Tucson’s titanic contribution to winning the Cold War provides context for the maintenance of nuclear weapons in an unwieldy world not dissimilar from ours today.

A test launch of a Titan II, 1960sHumanity is fortunate no Titan IIs were ever launched. The ICBMs turned out to be expensive weapons that helped keep world peace, but that doesn’t mean that there weren’t some white-knuckle moments with these Armageddon-producing rockets.

The U.S. developed the Titan II when the Cold War was heating up in the early 1960s. An American spy plane had been shot down over Russia, Fidel Castro had repelled the CIA-led Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, and East Germany had built the Berlin Wall. The Titan II was an advancement of the nation’s first ICBMs, which were susceptible to attack due to their 15-minute launch process. The Titan IIs could be launched in less than one minute, with a range of 9,950 miles. The U.S. Air Force deployed 18 missiles each to bases in Little Rock, Wichita and Tucson, while nine were stationed at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

The $80 million Titan II project was mostly welcomed as a significant economic boost to Tucson. But Dr. James McDonald, a senior physicist at the University of Arizona, led an unsuccessful campaign against their location. Concerned about radioactive fallout, he lobbied for the sites to be positioned in downwind areas east of Tucson to lessen the danger to the city. A 1960 editorial in the Tucson Daily Star, however, posed the biggest worry for many residents: “…what will Tucson do when the big construction payrolls come to an end?”

The Titan II project was fast-tracked because of national security concerns. The design and construction happened almost simultaneously to facilitate the development of the launch facilities. Tucson’s sites were separated by a minimum of 8 miles to lessen the possibility that a single nuclear warhead could destroy more than one. Each site consisted of three underground facilities: a 180-foot-deep missile silo, a launch control center and an access portal, each 40 feet deep.

a Titan II positioned in an underground silo, 1960sConstruction in a semicircle around Tucson began in December 1960, and the sites were operational by 1963. The closest site was 20 miles northwest of Downtown, and all of the sites were built by private contractors and outfitted with communication systems and missiles by the Air Force. The high-tech defense system was an engineering marvel. “Buck Rogers has nothing on us whatsoever, and this is reality, not something dreamed up,” engineer A.C. LaRue told the Tucson Daily Citizen. Tucson’s sites were built to a uniform design. Morris describes them as noisy, with dated furnishings. “The floors were battleship-gray linoleum and orange rust carpet,” she says. Four crew members worked a 24-hour shift every third day.

Marge Humphrey, another Titan II commander, recalls the job as continually preparing for something you hope you’ll never do, but you have to be ready for – like a firefighter or emergency room doctor, but on an apocalyptic scale. There were a few close calls. “One night, an alarm went off that indicated missile propellant was leaking,” Humphrey says. “Thankfully, it turned out to be an alarm malfunction.”

Upgrades doubled the Titan II’s service period from its original lifespan of 10 years. A dramatic incident at a silo in Arkansas in 1980 was the beginning of the end for the ICBMs. A maintenance worker dropped a tool down a silo that caused a fuel tank leak and missile explosion; a serviceman was killed, and the launch door was blown off. The missile’s nuclear warhead landed 100 feet away without detonating, thanks to its safety features. “It was one more black mark to an aging missile system,” Morris says. Thanks to age and economics, Titan IIs were decommissioned between 1982 and 1987. Tucson’s sites closed in 1984. Dismantling a Titan II involved removing the warhead and missile, and stripping the site of valuable components before covering it with soil.

illustration of a Titan II underground facility (left to right): launch control center, access portal and missile silo, 1960sAfter the Titan II launch sites were decommissioned, the 10-acre parcels were sold and became above-ground sites for private homes as well as a church, plant nursery and a fitness center. One was preserved as the Titan Missile Museum in Green Valley, south of Tucson; Morris serves as the director. The museum’s mission is to provide a framework for people to make informed decisions about nuclear weapons, especially relevant with the world’s current political instability. Morris recalls her most poignant moment at the museum, when a former Soviet missile launch officer, who had emigrated to the U.S., toured the facility with his son. When the tour guide learned of his background, they were brought to meet Morris. “He looked at me dead in the eye, and said, ‘Thank you for not launching,’ and I responded, ‘Thank you for not launching,’” she says.

Morris says meeting her former adversary reinforced her belief that ordinary people worked in extraordinary jobs on both sides to prevent World War III. In hindsight, she believes what motivated Titan II crews was the desire not to use their apocalyptic weapons. “We were not hungry for war, we were working for peace,” she says. “It’s a combination of strategic deterrence and luck, but driven by good people trying to avert a bad outcome.”

Since the Cold War, the U.S. has put seven land-based ICBMs on alert, part of our nuclear triad of bombers and submarine-launched intercontinental ballistic missiles.

Atlas – Operational: 1959-1964
Range: 6,300 miles
Payload: 1.44-3.75 megatons

Titan I – Operational: 1960-1965
Range: 7,025 miles
Payload: 3.75 megatons

Titan II – Operational: 1963-1987
Range: 9,950 miles
Payload: 9 megatons

Minuteman I – Operational: 1962-1974
Range: 6,300 miles
Payload: 1.2 megatons

Minuteman II – Operational: 1965-1995
Range: 7,000 miles
Payload: 1.2 megatons

Minuteman III – Operational: 1972-present
Range: 8,080 miles
Payload: 3 x 300 kilotons

Peacekeeper – Operational: 1986-2005
Range: 8,700 miles
Payload: 10 x 300 kilotons

Note: In comparison, the two nuclear bombs dropped on Japan during World War II had payloads of 15 and 21 kilotons.

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