A team of Air Force Global Strike Command Airmen from the 90th Missile Wing at F.E. Warren Air Force Base, Wyoming, launched an unarmed Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile equipped with a test re-entry vehicle from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., Oct. 21, 2015. (Airman 1st Class Ian Dudley/U.S. Air Force)
Colorado is by design a prime target for a Russian nuclear attack.
Residents were reminded of this unpleasant circumstance when Russian President Vladimir Putin alluded to the use of nuclear weapons as part of his invasion of Ukraine. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the threat of nuclear attack seemed relatively dormant for decades. Not anymore. The post-Cold War luxury of abiding sleepy nukes is over, and Americans are jolted back to 1980s-like Armageddon anxiety.
This is one of the innumerable awful outcomes of Putin’s murderous actions. It should reanimate the horror with which all peaceful people have viewed nuclear weapons since their inception, and it should reignite the worldwide movement to abolish them.
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Coloradans have special cause to make this an urgent project. Russia is thought to have the largest nuclear arsenal in the world, with 6,000 weapons. The United States has about 5,500 nuclear weapons, and a substantial batch of them come in the form of Minuteman intercontinental ballistic missiles deployed to silos in a patch of prairie that straddles Nebraska, Wyoming and Colorado. This site, overseen by the 90th Missile Wing out of the F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Cheyenne, Wyoming, is well-known to Russian war planners. The missiles are capable of hitting targets thousands of miles away, but it’s thought that military leaders never expected them to fly.
“Their primary mission is to be destroyed in the ground, along with all the people that live anywhere near them,” wrote Tom Collina of Ploughshares Fund in Defense One. “Their main purpose is to ‘absorb’ a nuclear attack from Russia.”
That’s why the site is known as a “nuclear sponge.” There are two other U.S. sponge sites, one in North Dakota and another in Montana. The five sponge states are home to the likely highest-priority targets of a Russian nuclear attack. As Insider put it, “While large population centers with huge cultural impact may seem like obvious choices, a smarter nuclear attack would focus on countering the enemy’s nuclear forces.”
Colorado has a bonus high-priority nuclear target, North American Aerospace Defense, or NORAD, at Peterson Space Force Base in Colorado Springs.
That’s why Putin’s aggression is especially unnerving to Coloradans. On Sunday Putin announced that he ordered Russia’s “deterrence forces to a special regime of duty.” On Feb. 23, Putin warned that if the West intervened in Ukraine, “The consequences will be such as you have never seen in your entire history.” The message: We have nukes, and we’re ready to use them.
It would be a mistake to treat the message as a bluff.
Deterrence is a loathsome basis on which to plot the annihilation of whole societies.
“The thing about Putin is, if he has an instrument, he wants to use it. Why have it if you can’t?” Fiona Hill, the Russia expert and former National Security Council official, said about Putin’s nuclear threat. “So if anybody thinks that Putin wouldn’t use something that he’s got that is unusual and cruel, think again. Every time you think, ‘No, he wouldn’t, would he?’ Well, yes, he would.”
We’re told that human civilization survived the Cold War due to deterrence, the principle that one state’s nuclear weapons would deter an enemy from attacking with its own nuclear weapons since the enemy could expect retaliation or mutual assured destruction. Nuclear deterrence is still a core component of U.S. and NATO posture.
But deterrence is a loathsome basis on which to plot the annihilation of whole societies. Among the numerous flaws of nuclear deterrence theory is that it depends on the people who possess nuclear weapons acting rationally. A moment’s reflection reveals no shortage of real-world recent examples of unhinged men in control of nukes. Take Putin: “There’s evident visceral emotion in things that he said in the past few weeks justifying the war in Ukraine,” Hill said. “The pretext is completely flimsy and almost nonsensical.”
Moreover, the mechanics of deterrence theory are deeply immoral, and the very presence of nuclear weapons creates an unacceptable potential for accident or misunderstanding. The whole justification for strategic nuclear arms is sophistry.
In 2002, a group of nuns, including Sister Ardeth Platte, who was the inspiration for a character in the series “Orange is the New Black,” broke into a missile facility in Weld County and, after pouring bottles of their own blood in the shape of a cross on a Minuteman III blast lid, banged the lid with a hammer. Attack helicopters responded and the nuns were arrested at gunpoint. They were convicted of sabotage and jailed.
That kind of committed resistance to the grotesque weapons in our midst has slackened in the last two decades. But the Russian threat warrants a resurgence of anti-nuclear protest. Few Americans are prepared to go to jail for it. But every American, every Russian, every human on the planet, can find ways to assert opposition to strategic nuclear arms.
Coloradans would have at least as much to gain from the success of such protest as anyone.
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