The two missileers patiently wait in silence as they take an elevator dozens of feet below frozen farmland about 20 miles from Minot Air Force Base, N.D. As they finally reach the bottom, they open the elevator doors where a sealed 8-ton, 2-foot-thick concrete blast door welcomes them.
Once inside, yet another blast door seals the launch control center, commonly known as a capsule for its pill-like shape. The LCC is their destination, but it must be opened from the inside, where another pair of missileers awaits them to be relieved of duty.
As the door slowly opens, the familiar hiss of the air intake breaks the cold silence, revealing the solid white capsule that’s suspended in air by four massive shock absorbers. An outstretched hand welcomes them to where they’ll spend the next 24 hours. Inside the cramped capsule is pea-green and white colored computer equipment that could easily be confused with props from a 1960’s sci-fi movie.
After exchanging pleasantries with their fellow missileers, the two crew commanders begin a short changeover followed by a top-to-bottom inspection of the entire capsule and its equipment to make sure everything is in working order. When the commander is satisfied, he signs a form, officially putting him and his deputy commander on duty, but not before they remove their Air Force Global Strike Command patches from their flight suits and replace them with U.S. Strategic Command patches, signifying the combatant command they belong to while on duty. For the next day, America’s arsenal of Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles and its primary means of nuclear deterrence rest in the capable hands of these missileers and dozens of others like them spread throughout the United States. After more than 50 years of continued deterrence, the missileers have never had to launch an ICBM.
“When we’re on alert, we report directly to the president of the United States, and that’s why we wear the USSTRATCOM patches when we’re on duty. Our mission is deterrence, and we fulfill it every day,” said 1st Lt. Aaron Vogeler, a missile combat crew commander on his 169th alert. “It’s a very important and necessary job, and because of the deterrence we provide, it helps our fellow service members overseas do their jobs.”
At this launch control center, Vogeler and his deputy missile combat crew commander, 2nd Lt. Chris Hall, are responsible for 10 ICBMs strategically positioned throughout North Dakota.
“We’re responsible to maintain a safe, secure and reliable weapon system … to make sure these weapons don’t launch when we don’t want them to and make sure they would launch anytime the president would want them to,” he said.
There are not many amenities in the 125-square foot capsule, with the exception of a TV. There’s a tiny bathroom equipped with a stainless steel, prison-style toilet and sink on one end and a small bed on the other. The missileers alternate sleeping rotations at various points in their shift so they can stay alert.
Their consoles match the same aging look as the rest of the computer equipment neatly packed into the capsule. Each missileer has his or her own workstation with a computer monitor that displays lines of text with incredibly basic characters, almost like an MS-DOS computer. However, it’s here where the missileers do the bulk of their work and stay in constant communication with their peers at other LCCs. Overhead sits rows of checklists they use for each and every situation that may arise during their alert.
The lieutenant said the potential of having to launch a missile and the destructive impact it would have on the world is a sobering thought, but he trusts his leaders that all the necessary measures would be exhausted before that would happen.
“It’s tough to think about, but what gives me peace is that we have systems in place that (launching a missile) is a last resort, and that decision would be made only as a last resort,” Vogeler said.
After several hours into their shift, which usually begins in the early afternoon, it’s Vogeler’s turn to sleep.
“Not seeing daylight helps, but I have to trick my mind to think it’s later in the day than it really is,” he explained. “Otherwise, I’d lay there all day before falling asleep.”
When he’s sleeping, Hall is in charge, and while he’s now comfortable manning the controls on his own after pulling 17 alerts, his first alert is still etched in his mind.
“That’s when I realized it was real,” he said. “The stress level was high on the first night. My mind did not stop thinking. That night, I couldn’t sleep when it was finally time to switch out. I laid there in bed thinking about everything that I did and replaying it in my mind asking myself, ‘Did I do everything right, or did I miss something?’”
Hall said he’s benefited from working alongside Vogeler, who’s been a missileer for about two and a half years.
“He’s been a mentor to me, and he knows his stuff,” he said, referring to Vogeler. “Sometimes, I have to tell him to slow down because he does everything so fast. When we have slow periods, I ask questions and open the books to learn more about it. He’s been good working with me and slowing things down and getting me up to speed.”
Aside from the missileers below ground, a team of Airmen remains topside to provide security, food and to ensure all the equipment remains operational.
“They have their mission, and we have our mission, but we work together very closely,” Vogeler said. “The facility manager is responsible for everything that goes on topside. We’re all professionals out here, and everyone here is certified to be doing what they’re doing.”
At the end of their alert and when another set of missileers arrive to relieve them, they open the blast door and extend a handshake to welcome them aboard just like the previous pair did before them. They didn’t have to launch any missiles but stood ready on constant alert just like so many missileers have done before them.