The Air Force monitors the world’s most powerful weapons with equipment made during the Space Age, not the Information Age. But these old launch systems are holding up better than most people think. “To build something that has withstood the test of time and continues to be a marvelous engineering system is just nothing short of genius,” Klotz says. “The 1960s designers really did think this through very carefully and designed in a lot of redundancy.”
It takes thousands of dedicated airmen at three Air Force bases—Malmstrom, F.E. Warren in Wyoming and Minot in North Dakota—to keep the nation’s ICBM silos operational. Since 2000, the Pentagon has spent more than $7 billion on ICBM renovations. None of the money went to launch facilities; the Air Force instead amped up base security, improved command and control cryptography, updated missile guidance systems and replaced rocket fuel. (The same warheads, deployed in 1979, sit in the ICBMs’ noses, but this February the National Nuclear Security Administration began studying a replacement, to be produced in 2021.) Klotz says the Air Force has upgraded “every inch” of the Minuteman III missile since replacing its predecessors in the 1970s.