THE MONEY PIT

Posted in Random Facts on June 7th, 2015 by Ed

I'll try to keep this from becoming a running travelogue but there are some things I get no other opportunity to talk about. By the end of this post you will understand why.

This large nation is not populated very evenly. The vast majority of us live in a (relative) handful of spots and huge swaths of the rest of the country are lightly populated if at all. Of the places I've had the opportunity to see up close, North Dakota and Montana take the cake for pure desolation. You can, and of necessity will, drive for hours in this part of the country without seeing another car or a human settlement of more than 1000 people. Rugby, North Dakota bills itself as the "Geographic Center of North America" which is particularly fitting, as northern North Dakota is as close as one can get to being in the actual middle of nowhere.

I chose my route to Seward's Folly with the intent of getting to see some things I've always wanted to see, namely one of my personal favorite pieces of Cold War arcana / bizarre architecture. To do so entailed driving for hours to Nekoma, ND, which as best I could tell is populated solely by aggressive mosquitoes.

Short version: As soon as the great powers of the Cold War developed missiles capable of lobbing nuclear weapons at one another from 20,000 miles away (Intercontinental ballistic missiles, or ICBM) the military-technological version of the mythical city of gold has been the creation of a missile to shoot down other missiles. Like a king cobra that only feeds on other snakes, anti-ballistic missiles (ABM) were among the centerpieces of Reagan's "Star Wars" fairy tales in the 1980s. But the idea is as old as offensive missiles, which is to say dating to the 1940s or earlier.

Briefly, ABMs do not work. Just take my word for it on this point. They don't work and they will never work despite the literal trillions that have been poured into developing them over the past half-century. George W. Bush resurrected the idea ("National Missile Defense") in 2004, mostly because he is a very stupid person. There is no advance or development in ABMs that cannot be negated by cheap countermeasures: plastic dummy warheads, chaff, or sheer volume. Do not debate me on this point because you are wrong.

Where were we. Ah, yes. The 1970s. In that lamentable decade the Pentagon devoted more than six billion dollars to the creation of a project called Safeguard, an ABM system intended to shoot down incoming Soviet nuclear weapons. Using the Distant Early Warning system in Arctic Canada (google "DEW Line" if you want an interesting read) to alert us to a Cossack sneak attack, Safeguard was supposed to identify, track, and shoot down incoming threats. Since the route of attack for Soviet missiles (or bombers) crossed the North Pole and Canada, the far northern central US was considered the best location for Safeguard. That's how I ended up in Nekoma, ND.

Safeguard was, even by military pork project standards, grotesquely pointless. It did not work particularly well, and even if it worked perfectly it had a paltry number of defensive missiles relative to the hundreds upon hundreds of ICBMs an enraged USSR could have fired at us. It was online for less than 2 years and then quietly mothballed.

What remains in rural North Dakota is a truly surreal modern archaeological site.

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That giant cyclopean concrete pyramid is a multidirectional phased array radar intended to identify incoming missiles then precisely target and fire an American missile to knock it down. The missile silos in the ground do not appear in the photograph because the area is barbed-wired off and there's insufficient elevation anywhere nearby to get a good overhead view. I also found that the closest town inhabited by humans – Langdon, ND – has a deactivated missile from the Safeguard system in its public park. How cheerful.

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Fortunately we've learned quite a bit from all of these debacles – strategic, technological, economic, etc – over the years and the U.S. has finally stopped throwing money into the black hole of a technology that is unlikely to work against a threat that is unlikely to materialize.

Oh. Wait. Never mind. I guess we'll keep building future relics. Hopefully more conveniently located ones.