How do you shoot down an ICBM? At the height of the Cold War, the answer to that question and almost every other warfighting question was the same: explode an atom bomb. How do you shoot down an enemy bomber fleet? Explode an atom bomb on top of it. How do you stop Soviet tank divisions in Europe? Hit them with nuclear weapons.
In North Dakota, not far from the Canadian border, sits what may be the ultimate monument to the Cold War. The Stanley R. Mickelson Safeguard Complex (SRMSC) was designed to protect the Minuteman missile fields at Grand Forks Air Force Base from the staggering prospect of a Soviet missile attack….at least long enough for the Strategic Air Command to obtain a launch order from the President and retaliate with our own missiles. The SRMSC was the only installation of its kind in the country and, unlike modern anti-ballistic missiles which use precise kinetic impact to destroy descending enemy warheads, this complex would respond to such threats with the technology of the day. 40 years ago, that meant a thermonuclear explosion overhead that would obliterate the incoming target.
The SRMSC was operational for only a brief period of time in the mid 1970s but the distinctive architecture of the Missile Site Radar (MSR) complex is likely to be with us permanently. The obvious silhouette of the MSR is that of a pyramid yet, when the view is altered, it takes on the appearance of a Cyclops.
The primitive theme continues as you study the monolithic intake and exhaust stacks (hardened against nuclear blast) of the underground power plant. The Moai statues of Easter Island come to mind.
The MSR Complex (located in Nekoma, ND) was a key part of the battle management infrastructure designed to shoot down incoming ICBM (intercontinental ballistic missile) warheads. This infrastructure consisted of an integrated system of radars, data processing and two types of missiles, Spartan and Sprint. There were also two types of radar used in the Safeguard system. The Perimeter Acquisition Radar, or PAR, was located approximately 20 miles northeast of the MSR Complex and was used for long range target tracking. The MSR was used for target tracking and missile guidance. Both the PAR and MSR utilized phased array radar antennas which offered distinct advantages over conventional, rotating radar antennas. One advantage of phased array radar is that its beam can be electronically steered in milliseconds, allowing many targets to be tracked simultaneously. In addition, this type of radar can be hardened against nuclear blast.
The MSR Complex also included a missile field with 30 long-range Spartan and 16 short-range Sprint missiles deployed in underground cells. In addition, the MSR could command the launch of another 54 Sprint missiles located in four Remote Sprint Launch Sites or RSLs. Spartan was designed to intercept incoming warheads at high altitude at distances in excess of 400 miles. Sprint was a quick-reaction missile used to knock out enemy warheads at close range. A Sprint launch is dramatic….its acceleration is immediate and stunning. Both Spartan and Sprint were armed with enhanced radiation nuclear warheads (the so-called neutron bomb).
(Spartan missile field)
The SRMSC is held in caretaker status by the US Government, General Services Administration (GSA), and they granted me permission to visit and tour the site in July, 2011. My contact and tour guide was Jerry Greenwood, Facility Engineer. Although Jerry works for a government contractor, he has an extensive background in missile engineering, R&D and facility management. He served in the US Army on active duty at White Sands Missile Range and also worked at the SRMSC PAR Complex for nine years.
The grounds of the MSR complex are grassy and reasonably well maintained. When viewed from a distance, it’s hard to tell that the facility is abandoned. Even today, there is a certain futuristic quality in its appearance. Upon closer examination, the austerity is apparent. Many support buildings have been removed and there are few visitors. We spent some time inside the MSR building and the interior shows the effects of water intrusion, rust and corrosion.
There are noticeable hazards including steep drop-offs and sizeable floor openings. Indeed, there has been a fatality here since the facility was shut down when a workman stepped on what appeared to be solid flooring and fell through one of those openings to the next level below.
Whither SRMSC? In spite of the current state of affairs, the SRMSC may have an interesting future if local groups have their way. I spoke to Clint Esckilsen, a spokesperson and board member of the Cavalier County Job Development Office. Their goal is to have the GSA turn over the MSR complex to local authorities and establish an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) test facility with a runway and hangar on part of the 430 acre property. They also want to preserve the historic nature of the MSR pyramid and co-located missile field. Ideally, this would consist of a small interpretive center that would highlight the role of the SRMSC in Cold War history and our nation’s defense. The deployment of the Safeguard ABM system in and around Nekoma had a major impact on the people of Cavalier County, North Dakota. It spiked the local economy during its development and construction....it also had the opposite effect when the system was abruptly shut down in 1976. (System was shut down due to a combination of factors including high operating costs as well as the impact of the SALT II treaty.) In recent years, giant wind turbines have sprouted in the surrounding countryside adding to an eclectic skyline of grain silos, power transmission towers and the MSR complex. All of these structures will meet their demise in one way or another but I have a sneaky feeling that the three foot thick, reinforced concrete walls of the MSR building will keep their pyramid shape for a long time.
The SRMSC is for sale! Now is your chance to own a one of a kind Cold War missile base! The Feds, via the General Services Administration, are conducting an online auction of the only Safeguard Anti-Ballistic Missile Complex ever built by the United States. The Cavalier County Job Development Authority tried to negotiate the purchase of the 430 acre site from the Federal Government but environmental issues helped bring that process to a halt. The current bid is only $10,000. (plus any necessary environmental remediation) so it just might be within your reach. There are five separate auctions so you can buy the whole thing or maybe just one of the RSLs. Before you get too excited and succumb to the auctioneer's gavel, you need to be aware that the North Dakota Department of Health has issued a Notice of Violation and wants certain types of hazardous waste removed from the site. According to the Cavalier County Job Development Authority, the main issue is the 400,000+ gallons of wastewater that has accumulated in the Spartan missile silos. The water contains lead and chromium....proper remediation is estimated to cost $4-6 million. Any deep pockets out there?
SRMSC has new owners! (7/30/2013)
As reported above, the SRMSC was made available to the highest bidder via an online auction by the GSA. A winning bid of $530,000. was accepted in December of 2012 and the sale closed in February of 2013. The new owner is the Spring Creek Hutterite Colony of Forbes, ND.
The Hutterites are a faith group with 45,000 or so members living in several hundred colonies scattered across the North American prairies. They practice a peaceful, communal lifestyle and typically sustain themselves through agriculture and, in some cases, manufacturing. Their Christian beliefs and lifestyle are similar to the Amish and Mennonites.
Their purchase of the SRMSC is interesting and their future plans are unclear. Of the 430 acres, only about 1/3 can be farmed. So far, they have done a small amount of "no-till" farming of beans but, other than that, the Hutterites have no real presence yet. Another 1/3 of the complex is considered historic by the North Dakota State Historic Preservation Office which means that the owners can't build or change the exterior appearance of existing buildings without permission. Other portions of the complex are considered a wetland which, presumably, entails other regulatory restrictions.
There are two other important developments which may influence the direction of the SRMSC:
1. The US Army has accepted responsibility for the environmental cleanup which transfers a sizable liability away from present and future owners.
2. The Cavalier County Job Development Authority is still in negotiations to buy all or part of the complex from the Spring Creek Hutterite Colony.
Personally, I think the Missile Site Radar complex would make a fantastic Cold War interpretive center. More to follow as the situation unfolds....
Thanks to David Novack for the Sprint launch video.
The history of the SRMSC is fascinating on many levels and my website only scratches the surface. If you want to go deep on the SRMSC and learn about a key installation of the Cold War, please check out David Novack's comprehensive web site, srmsc.org