May 6, 2008 Today (NBC), 7:00 AM
MEREDITH VIEIRA: Back now at 7:43, and this morning on our special series ACCESS GRANTED, a remote area of the US where a few men and women hold the fate of millions of lives in their hands. At this moment in central Montana, there are 200 long-range nuclear missiles deployed and ready to respond to a nuclear attack on America.
MATT LAUER: Al Roker is on top of one of those missiles at Malmstrom Air Force Base near Great Falls in the first ever live broadcast from a nuclear missile launch facility.
Al, if we can get your image up, good morning. Can you hear me?
AL ROKER: I can hear you, Matt. I guess we're having a little technical problem.
LAUER: There we go.
VIEIRA: There we go.
LAUER: We got you now.
ROKER: Can you see? OK, you can see me now. All right. Can you hear me now?
ROKER: I'm standing in a specially--as you might imagine, there just was a little communications issues here, given all that goes on here. But we are right now in a specially designed truck called a payload transfer van. Down this hole behind me is a live nuclear weapon, a Minuteman III missile. If the president gave the order to launch, the Air Force would evacuate us right now and fire this missile within minutes. It's 60-feet tall, can carry up to three nuclear warheads and can reach targets up to 7,000 miles away.
Two hundred Minuteman missiles are deployed in these concrete and steel-hardened silos underneath these launch facilities. Today, the men and women of Malmstrom Air Force Base secure and maintain the country's largest nuclear arsenal. Tactical response teams are on alert 24 hours a day to handle any breach in the perimeter of the launch facilities. These sharp-shooters are armed to the teeth and authorized to use deadly force.
Sergeant JASON JOHNSTON (Security Forces, Malmstrom Air Force Base): We realize that this is the nation's strategic deterrent and without these deterrents, you know, who knows what nations out there would like to rise up and do to the United States. So we understand the gravity of our mission and take it very seriously.
ROKER: That mission started here in the United States after World War II. The US Army recruited German scientists who had already developed the world's first missiles for the Nazis to help launch America's first missile program. Those who didn't come to the US fled to the Soviet Union and the arms race began.
As tensions mounted between the United States and the Soviet Union, both countries escalated the production of their nuclear arsenals at an alarming rate following a strategy known as mutually assured destruction.
KENNETTE BENEDICT (Executive Director, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists): The idea is that each country has so many nuclear weapons and they can be delivered so quickly that each can destroy the other country and thus no one can win a nuclear war. So if no one can win a nuclear war, then the idea is that no one would start a nuclear war.
ROKER: That theory faced its toughest test during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. A Soviet plan to deploy missiles on the Caribbean island put the world on the brink of nuclear war before President Kennedy worked out an agreement with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev.
Construction of the first Minuteman launch control center just up this hill was completed less than a month before the Cuban Missile Crisis. Later, President Kennedy said the Soviets backed down because they knew about his ace in the hole, the long-range missiles deployed here at Malmstrom Air Force Base.
For the next three decades, American presidents worked with their Soviet counterparts to scale back the arms race until a major breakthrough in 1991.
BRYANT GUMBEL: (From 1991 Today broadcast) The first time that the United States and the Soviet Union have agreed to reduce their arsenal.
ROKER: Since the signing of the historic START I treaty, leaders of both superpowers have worked together to remove 80 percent of the world's nuclear weapons. But almost 20 years after the end of the Cold War, protecting the country's nuclear arsenal is still a full-time job.
And here live inside the payload transfer van, joining me is Senior Master Sergeant Timothy Ryan. He is a security forces superintendent, keeping this safe.
Sergeant Ryan, right now we're in this maintenance van. Most of these silos are only a few dozen feet from highways here in Montana. What stops people from trying to get in here?
Senior Master Sergeant TIMOTHY RYAN (Security Forces Superintendent): Well, sir, traffic does pass by these every day, hundreds of cars every day, but we have sense--security sensor systems out here that will detect anybody that tries to access the site. The systems are so sensitive that if a rabbit runs through the site, a response will be required. Security forces respond to it immediately and if we detect potential hostile situations, our tactical response force will team up with our mobile fire team forces and that force together will be enough to stop any hostile that would occur out here.
ROKER: So they're well protected. How many--how many Minuteman launch facilities are there like this in operation right now in the United States?
RYAN: Well, sir, there's 500 launch facilities within the United States. There's 200 at Malmstrom Air Force Base here in Montana, there's another 150 at Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota and another 150 at F.E. Warren in Wyoming.
ROKER: And this, I mean, this is one of the most deadliest sites going. These gentlemen have to work here constantly. But let me bring in Sergeant Angala.
Sergeant Dan Angala, come on in. You're--once these are all secured, they're all working here, what--I mean, what is this like? You're part of this maintenance team, you oversee this. Working in a cramped area like this with one of the most deadly missiles on Earth.
Sergeant DAN ANGALA: Well, sir, it's--working in a cramped environment such as this really facilitates the technicians and their capability to monitor the safety of the weapons system, and equally as important, the safety of each other.
ROKER: Right. Now, for safety reasons we've got the live missile intact underneath, but tell us what's going on right here.
ANGALA: Well, sir, what they're doing here is they are taking this training re-entry system and what they're preparing to do is lift it up from the forward area of the payload transporter. They're going to bring it to the floor hatch section and they're going to lower it down and perform a detailed inspection on the shroud and prepare to install it on the missile itself.
ROKER: You're dealing with missiles--if you can come over this way--with missiles that are more than 30 years old, and they've never been launched. How do you make sure that they work when we need them?
ANGALA: Well, sir, the role of maintenance in this weapons system is to constantly modernize and upgrade the weapons system. Within the last three years we've replaced every major subsystem in the missile and we have things such as follow and test evaluation programs where we actually pull a missile from a site off of here, we ship it to Vandenberg Air Force Base in California and they perform a test--they actually launch it to test...
ROKER: Make sure it's working. Sergeant Angala, thank you so much.
This is, I got to tell you, unprecedented. And I tell you, when you watch what's going on here, you have to be impressed with the precision that the Air Force works with this. They're--right now you don't see the very top there, the nose cone, that's not on right now. But once they lower that back down into the payload bay, they'll put that all together. And again, three nuclear missile--warheads in there. We're not allowed down in there, basically because there's so much danger that even just touching the missile could actually set off some explosives. Not the nuclear part, obviously, but because of static electricity there could be problems. So we're staying up here, because we want to make sure everybody's safe. Guys:
VIEIRA: And they're keeping you up there, Al, for sure.
LAUER: Yeah, no question about the pressure that the people who work there have to be under.
ANN CURRY: Oh. Oh, my...
LAUER: It's just enormous.
ROKER: Incredible amount of pressure. And they perform this every day.
LAUER: All right, Al, thanks very much.
CURRY: Thanks, Al.
VIEIRA: Thanks, Al.
LAUER: Our ACCESS GRANTED series continues this morning with a look at one of the most heavily guarded and secured areas in the world. Al Roker is near Great Falls, Montana, at Malmstrom Air Force Base, where the men and women of the 341st Space Wing secure and maintain the world's deadliest weapons.
Al, good morning again.
ROKER: Well, good morning, guys. And earlier, we showed you one of the 500 Minuteman missiles that are currently deployed in the United States. We've now moved 12 miles away and we are 60 feet underground. Take a look. You can see up there, that is the top. But we are now 60 feet underground and at the launch center that controls this missile. Just past this blast door, an eight-ton blast door, there are two missileers in there who control and are ready to launch their missiles at a moment's notice.
Montana, land of the panoramic plains and the rustic ranches of cattle country. Just off these state highways, inside these unremarkable ranch-style homes, deep in the heart of Big Sky Country and 60 feet underground, you'll find the nerve centers of America's largest nuclear arsenal. The missileers of the 341st Space Wing are e on alert 24/7, 365 days a year. They train for the worst case scenario in a launch control simulator, preparing for the day they may be asked to launch a nuclear weapon.
Unidentified Airman #1: Five, four, three, two, one. Turn.
Captain EDWARD FERGUSON (Missileer, Malmstrom AFB): Missileers are the most professional group of people you'll find in the United States Air Force. And we keep it all straight, networks every day and we maintain that high standard of excellence through our training, through our evaluations and through our teamwork.
Unidentified Airman #2: Spread your arms for me please, sir.
ROKER: While two missileers are on alert underground, security forces stand guard at the house, 60 feet above the capsule.
OK. So if somebody tries to get through that gate, what's going to happen?
Unidentified Airman #3: Eventually just going to end up not being a very good day for them.
ROKER: Now, it's not all about doom and gloom for the team missile squadron. When they're not in the capsule, team members can relax with a game of pool, security team members can hit the weight room to stay in shape and all of the team members enjoy the services of a chef assigned to the missile alert facility. It's all part of the support system in place to keep missileers happy and healthy in the face of enormous responsibility.
First Lieutenant TOMO ONO (Missileer, Malmstrom AFB): You know that you are serving a country in the way that really impacts everybody who lives in this country.
ROKER: This is the first time the Air Force has allowed live cameras inside a control capsule, down here, 60 feet under. Normally, this eight-ton blast door would be sealed, keeping these two missileers inside. Come on, this is again an unprecedented look.
First of all, if you notice, this is six feet of concrete you have to get through. And then this was all built in the late 1950s, early 1960s. These are basically shock absorbers here. In case there was a nuclear blast, these shock absorbers would basically keep this capsule from crushing on the outside. And you can see all of this--this capsule is basically isolated from the rest of the facility so that if there's any sort of blast, these shock absorbers would take this.
We are now inside, for the first time live, a working launch control center. Joining me is Lieutenant Colonel David Stone. He is the commander here at the 110th Missile Squadron here in Malmstrom.
Commander Stone, thank you so much.
Lieutenant Colonel DAVID STONE: You're welcome. Thanks for joining us here in America's first ace in the hole. It's great to have you here.
ROKER: This was the first ace in the hole that President Kennedy referred to. Now tell me, what kind of safeguards are there in place to make sure the missile launch--you don't get hoaxes or anything like that.
STONE: Well, we're concerned with two things down here, Al: positive control and nuclear assurity. Nuclear assurity refers to ensuring that nothing happens to this weapon that we don't want to happen. For example, an unauthorized launch or anything like that. Similarly, we care about positive control, which is the other half of what we're concerned about here, which is our ability to respond if we do, in fact, get a lawful order from the president to launch our weapons. And we have a number of systems in here, not the least of which is the message directing us to launch has a series of authenticators and information in it that is known only to the president and it is physically impossible for the crew to launch the missiles without that information.
ROKER: And we want to make sure, as we come over here to the control panels, that all of this is blacked out so that there's no sensitive material that's broadcast. Joining me is Captain Mick Kruck. Now if the order came from the president, you verified the authenticity of that message, what do you and your deputy do to launch the missile?
Captain MIKE KRUCK: Well, sir, what happens is what you see here is the REACT console, the rapid execution and combat targeting console. The left screen is our communication screen and the right screen is our weapons system screen where we interact with the missiles. What would happen is, first, we would determine that message is authentic. You see our container here. Can hold...
ROKER: This is the lock--this is the locked container.
KRUCK: That is correct, sir. That is our locked container. You see myself and Lieutenant Mack both have our own lock.
KRUCK: The lock authenticators would come out. Together, we would verify that that message is, in fact, from the president of the United States. We would start out with our launch procedures. Lieutenant Mack would enable those missiles.
ROKER: And you both have to do that simultaneously?
KRUCK: That is correct, sir.
ROKER: And lieutenant, First Lieutenant Mack, let me bring you around over this way, you're in here for 24 hours. How do you keep from going crazy with each other?
First Lieutenant MACK: Well, down in our neck of the woods, we don't see the sun for 24 hours, so you find ways to be involved with other people. You learn about their families. You become really close-knit and you stay friends for many years after you leave, even this assignment. And you learn about their hobbies and their families and their kids. And...
ROKER: Twenty-four hours. You've got all the comforts of home. Behind that blue curtain, that's your bedroom back there?
MACK: That's where we sleep.
ROKER: Kind of like the Four Seasons, right?
MACK: Ah yes, Unfortunately.
ROKER: And you've got a microwave, fridge. And let me just--if we can just come around this way, Nelson. I just wanted to--in case people wanted to know where do you go to the john. There you go. That's the nuclear john right there. Oh, baby. That's pretty good.
So, Matt, this is--this is where it all happens here, 24 hours a day. These young people--and they've got one of the youngest work forces in the military here, which goes to what we talk about--what they talk about here at the Air Force about being ready and esprit de corps. Matt, Meredith and Ann.
LAUER: All right, it's a fascinating look, Al. Thank you very much.
CURRY: Frightening, too.
CURRY: Really frightening.
LAUER: And clearly things we don't get to see--get access to very often. Al, thank you very much.
CURRY: No. Hm, thanks, Al.
VIEIRA: Thanks, Al.