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.

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


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.


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.

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Hopefully more conveniently located ones.

54 thoughts on “THE MONEY PIT”

  • Awesome. I'm jealous. Didn't that pyramid rotate for full-sky coverage?

    The next time you're in Tucson, be sure and visit the Titan Missile Museum just south of the city. Decommissioned ICBM silo and command bunker, fully intact, with guided tours and a gift shop. Go down and sit at the console and turn the key! Fun for the whole family. Even more fun if you've read Schloesser's COMMAND AND CONTROL about what it was like to work in a Titan silo. Also in Tucson is the Davis-Monothan Air Force Base, which is also the military's plane boneyard, and endlessly fascinating for war nerds who never grew up.

  • Three quarters of Americans believe in angels, and a majority in many states believe that the universe and everything in it were created in six days.

    These people vote, and just as importantly, these people run for office.

    My point is not "oh my God, how stupid they are," oddly enough, but rather that we ought not to be surprised, given who we are in the aggregate, to have a democratically elected government that makes decisions in all matters of life based on blind, unreasoning faith.

    "Needing evidence" is simply another word for "doubt" to such people, and "progress" for "blasphemy."

    If you want to live in a country where people don't think that Reagan was a genius or that the weapons of our enemies can be struck down from the sky as if by magic, do not live in this one, because it's never ever going to change. It may collapse, explode, or otherwise go ker-ploink, but it will always be a place of faith over reason. Always.

  • That 1970s ABM project was a complete waste of time, but the Sprint short range missile was an impressive piece of work. Wiki sez "The Sprint accelerated at 100 g, reaching a speed of Mach 10 in 5 seconds.". YouTube videos of the thing being tested are pretty amazing.

  • @J. Dryden

    Not only do they vote and run for office, they reproduce, and then they home skul their kids.

  • I grew up in Montana. Desolation is the perfect word. Montana is a whore looking to sell itself to the higher bidder. You want to destroy a national park with development? Come on in! Montana's greatest lament right now is that they aren't North Dakota and profiting off the Bakken deposit. So they're trying to run as many oil pipelines through the stat as possible (including the Keystone). Dumping thousands of gallons of crude oil into the Yellowstone River? No problem! We welcome it.

    I grew up there, I hate it, and I don't want to go back. People who rave about its beauty miss the point: the state would gladly concrete over all of the beauty in a heartbeat if it mean more money or fulfilled some Libertarian ideal.

    Fun fact: growing up in the 80's there we had nuclear drills (alongside our bear and mountain lion and earthquake drills) because supposedly we were the #3 target for the Russians because of all the missile silos in the Eastern half of the state.

  • Jenaria: That's so cute. I grew up just outside DC in the '70s, and they didn't bother with nuclear drills. What would be the point?

  • Also, too: Doug "The Greaseman" Tracht, the local shock-jock in the early ’80s, used to bitch about having to do personal appearances out in the ’burbs, because if Russia dropped The Big One, he wanted to die instantly.

  • And at no time did any public figure point out that one nuclear missile blast in the wrong place or at the wrong time would disable a bunch of OTHER missiles headed somewhere else.
    So if one or more of them exploded too soon or went to the wrong place, a whole nuclear attack plan might go down the drain.

    Neither the US nor the USSR could be SURE that their stuff would work so neither dared start anything. All the rest was propaganda and pork.

  • Jestbill – that was actually the thinking behind the "Dense Pack" strategy for protecting MX missiles. Pack 'em close enough together that incoming soviet warheads would be knocked off target (or fried) by the explosions from the first ones to arrive.

  • I seem to recall an episode of "Rocky and Bullwinkle" dealing with an "anti-anti-ballistic-missile-missile". The subject is a very old joke.

  • I love "travelogue" Ed. I'm glad you're doing this trip and I love the entries that your destinations produce. Seems like you're having a good time! That's good. Continue to do so! :)

  • Bess Bibbentucker says:

    Wasn't there a plan to put missile launchers on railroad cars & move them around to confound the Rooskies? I bet that would make a great amusement park ride now.

  • Please, don't try to keep this from being a running travelogue. These are turning out to be some of your better columns in recent years.

  • Jaime oria says:

    @FMguru – the pyramid didn't physically move. Instead the jillions of antenna elements embedded in the concrete were activated in very rapid succession by computer so as to "virtually" sweep across the sky. The effect was of an extremely large antenna that could scan for targets far more swiftly than a physical radar dish could actually rotate. You also don't need to worry about high winds screwing with a free-standing structure – something that puts an upper size limit on civilian radio telescopes.

  • A dollar in 1970 is equivalent to over 6 dollars now. So 36 billion in terms of todays dollars were spent on that idiotic crap.

  • @hamletta Now as an adult, I see the uselessness. But they had us try and find the lowest point on the playground or in the classroom because the logic was that somehow if you were in a hole, the blast would go over the top of you? It was weird. Also, they had us hide under the desks so it was a lot like the earthquake drills. Very strange. The bear and mountain lion drills were far more useful.

  • c u n d gulag says:

    Oh, I remember the 1960's "duck and cover" drills in NYC's grade schools, alright!

    They had us duck under wooden desks – because, obviously, wood isn't liable to catch on fire you see, after a thermo-nuclear blast!

    Or, they had us run into the hallways and duck and cover on the floor on both sides of the wall.

    Even as kids, we knew this was fruitless bullshit!
    If a nuclear bomb – or, many of them – actually hit NY City, there would be no survivors.
    So, we used to joke, that we'd "duck and cover, and in ducking, kiss our asses goodbye!"

    Someone collected all of those bullshit video's, put them together, and released a film:
    "The Atomic Café."

    It's well worth the time, if only for shit's and giggles!

  • @Jeneria-
    I grew up in Nebraska, and we were constantly told that the SAC command in Offutt AFB was #2 on the "hit list". I think Nebraskans took some sort of pride in the idea that New York and LA were lower on the mythical hit list than our hick selves.

    Imagine a map of the US in your head (for those of you who rely on GPS for everything, sorry) and draw a line following I-35 from Minneapolis/St Paul to Dallas, west from Dallas to the Sierra Nevada mountains in California, and then head north following the mountains. Almost nobody lives there. That is America's "Empty Quarter". Looking at the 10 Mountain/ Great Plain states (the Dakotas, Nebraska, Kansas, Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, Utah, and Nevada) they have about 20 mil in population, or less than the metro population of New York City or Texas or California. A full third of the population of those states live in three metro areas as well: Denver, Las Vegas, and Salt Lake City. We forget that people really only live in cities, and while agriculture has improved in efficiency, it has turned from being labor-intensive to very automated about a generation ago.

    Don't forget, however, that one person's pork project is another person's vital, job-creating, necessary project. Government spending, as long as it isn't syphoned away by massive corruption, is government spending, no matter what it is spent on. We may see missile defense systems as a total waste of money, but to the people who had careers doing research, development, or construction, that was how they paid the bills for years. It is ironic, however, that Republicans seem to only count defense spending as "good", but spending on anything else, like poor people, to be a "waste". It's as if their future paychecks, or winning elections, depend on that misunderstanding.

  • When I joined Bell Labs in 1983, I was assigned to a pretty routine telecom project. But it was staffed by people who had been working on the Safeguard project. To hear them tell it, they only put off that project with the signing of the 1972 ABM treaty.

    On Friday afternoons you could get them talking about Safeguard. What they had been doing was pretty impressive given the state of computing technology in the early 1970s. Yet, they ceded the point that it didn't work. By time the project was canceled, they determined that the only way to make up for the inaccuracy of the ABM missiles were to arm *them* with nuclear warheads. They intimated that was the track they were on when the project was canceled. Jesus — setting off nuclear weapons in the high atmosphere.

  • Nuclear weapons to defeat same, the genie anti aircraft missile carried a small nuclear warhead intended to destroy an entire squadron of bombers simultaneously. For more cold war fun, read Charles Stross's "A Colder War".

  • NoDak native. My dad worked for Big Blue for most of his career. He would go up to the ABM site to do who knows what when I was a little boy. I'll have to ask him about it when I call him. One relic from Safeguard is still operational near Cavalier, ND, the Perimeter Acquisition Radar.

    Ed, believe it or not, you are traveling through the populated part of the state. In the southwest part of ND Golden Valley county and Slope county qualify as frontier (<2 people per square mile). Slope County has a whopping .6/person per square mile which is 1/4 the density of Cavalier County where Langdon is located.

    I'm guessing your route will take you through northeastern Montana. Be sure to top off your gas tank when given the opportunity. There are places in Montana such as US12 between Baker and Miles City where there are no services of any kind for 90 miles. The towns aren't quite as far apart in the northeast but…

  • Khaled – I nearly didn't make it to the end of your post [Three whole paragraphs!!!] – but you really hit paydirt with your observation on government spending.

    Maybe it's time to start spending public money on public projects besides defense and hideous vanity wars? Maybe if we called it The Eco War, frightened old Republicans would suddenly think "fighting" global warming was worth doing?

    Yeah, I crack myself up.

  • Bitter Scribe says:

    The late Michael O’Donoghue once wrote a hilarious sketch for the National Lampoon about Russia sneaking its nuclear missiles into American airspace by sticking plastic Santas on them and launching them on Christmas Eve. Last words: “Rudolph’s nose glowed brighter than it ever had before.”

  • @Mo

    Sort of like Paul Myers said, "The US should invade the USA and win the hearts and minds of the population by building schools, roads, and putting locals to work."

  • I have to take issue with the notion that W invested in ABMs out of sheer stupidity. ABM research is a great way to funnel money to the "right" people, if you know what I mean. It wouldn't surprise me if W is a true believer in ABMs, but I'd chalk that up to convenience and dogma as much as stupidity.

  • Steve in the ATL says:

    @Bitter Scribe:

    True story: the late Michael O’Donoghue offered me cocaine when I was 13 years old

  • Pete Gaughan says:

    Having played rugby and having played golf, now I will daydream about some day playing at Rugby Golf Club.

    My god, I just realized: you're in North Dakota and you're still not at the halfway point of your trip. Did you fit all your self-loathing in the trunk or leave some of it back home?

  • In my elementary school duck and cover drills, the first step was always drawing the floor to ceiling curtains across the windows. So the broken glass from the nuclear explosion shattering the windows wouldn't cut anyone.

    It was years before I realized how insane that idea was. Somehow I was never afraid of a nuclear attack. I have no idea why not.

  • @Khaled

    During the Cold War, targeting priority for nuclear weapons went pretty much like this:

    1. Military targets, especially command-control.
    2. Government
    3. Oil Refineries

  • Skepticalist says:

    It's good to know we didn't have a cyclopean concrete pyramid multidirectional phased radar array gap.

  • George Tirebiter says:

    If you're heading west, try to visit Nekoma's abandoned Safeguard counterpart – the government finished work on the North Dakota site but left an enormous, half-finished concrete-and-steel ruin on the plains in western Montana. Search "Montana PAR site".

  • if there is a bright side to this, the bar in Nekoma is The Pain Reliver and has really great neon signage.

  • More like the DON'T Line.

    I just stopped in to point out that good MSTies are well acquainted with the DEW Line and all of the work that went into building these Arctic outposts, thanks to their riffing of 1957's The Deadly Mantis.

  • @Major Kong-
    You probably know what SAC stands for, but for those who don't know or remember, SAC stood for Strategic Air Command. The US had a plane in the air with a high level general or some other leader in the air at all times, with a plane that could be refueled in the air and had enough fuel on board to last some absurd amount of time that I don't remember. The thinking was that if the Soviets launched a missile attack and destroyed the Pentagon and other command and control personnel, that someone would still be alive to coordinate the response. The reason it was located near Omaha is the same reason missile silos were located in North Dakota: it's about as far from the coast in North America as you can get, and a bomber would likely get shot down before it could get there, and someone would have the time to press the "Nuke 'em all" button as the missiles came down.

    BTW, the Russians thought that the US was really going to get the technology to make Star Wars work, and it scared the crap out of them. They really thought that as soon as the US figured out how to keep their missiles from getting through, that we would nuke the shit out of them. They also thought that Reagan was insane, and wanted to start WWIII. What they didn't realize is that war is only waged to increase the profits for companies who manufacture ways for people to kill each other.

  • @Khaled

    The plane you're referring to was called "Looking Glass". It was an EC-135 airborne command post that had a high ranking (4-star IIRC) general on board. One of them was always in the air and could be kept aloft by air refueling. They would only land once their replacement was on station.

    There was also a 747 NEACP National Emergency Airborne Command Post that the President and top govt officials would use to ride out the attack. It too could be air refueled.

    Finally there was another C-135 variant called a "TACAMO" (Take Command and Move Out) that had a Navy Admiral on board and could communicate with the submarines.

    I've refueled all of those aircraft at various times.

    You are correct that the Soviets greatly feared a US first strike. Their system was so centralized that they feared we might try to "decapitate" their leadership.

    They were afraid we might hit them with a sneak attack and then use our missile defense to soak up whatever they had left to strike back with.

  • The empty quarter's northern half is even emptier (despite substantial population gains recently thanks to energy development). Montana, Wyoming and the Dakotas have fewer than 3.2 million people. They have eight senators among them. California, Texas, Florida, and New York have more than 105,000,000 people and they also have eight senators. I know the senate races where I would spend my money if I had any.

  • @burnt

    Crap, now you have me looking up the history of Senators from Montana, Wyoming, and the Dakotas.

    Since 1977/1979 Wyoming has had 5 senators. 12 terms of Republicans there to build seniority and bring back more pork.

    Montana had 4 senators from 1978/1979 thanks to Max Baucus' 5+ terms. He was replaced by a midterm 2014 Republican in what was effectively an unopposed election for an open seat (crap – glad I didn't know about that at the time)

    Given the way the 2-party system and seniority works in the Senate small states should elect senators and plan on them serving for 25 years. Which is rather sad if you want effective governance.

  • Khaled: "BTW, the Russians thought that the US was really going to get the technology to make Star Wars work, and it scared the crap out of them. They really thought that as soon as the US figured out how to keep their missiles from getting through, that we would nuke the shit out of them. They also thought that Reagan was insane, and wanted to start WWIII. What they didn't realize is that war is only waged to increase the profits for companies who manufacture ways for people to kill each other."

    I've heard it the other way – they went to their experts, who explained why it wouldn't work.

    Also, that the USSR spent nothing trying to counter it.

  • Rick Wayne says:

    Google Earth has a very nice photo of the Safeguard site; you can examine the phased-array radar as well as the dozens of sliding silo covers for the Spartan and (smaller, short-range) Sprint missiles, the underground bunkers for them. I think the big circle is the power plant; dunno what all the concrete towers are for.

    48.589462, -98.356680

  • yourcrazyuncle says:

    Did you miss the Badlands in the Dakotas? The first explorers described them as…
    "hell with fires out".

  • yourcrazyuncle says:

    sorry, should have said the first 'white' explorers. I'm guessing the first people there had a more articulate and spiritual name. Just guessing.

  • This isn't the crazy limit of pentagon research. There was, for example, project Harp, which aimed to destroy the ionosphere. The Cobert report had a hilarious segment on a military project to use telepathic mind control against America's enemies.

  • Dense Pack
    According to Wiki, never implemented.

    One big problem with anti-nuclear missile defense is that the first nuclear missile to go off will blind your radar. So the offense can "walk down" missiles by setting detonations at lower and lower altitudes. You'll never see what hit you.

  • moderateindy says:

    While Star Wars is completely worthless, I have no problem with funding research for it. It seems like some of that research might be applicable to other areas. And let's face it, if they did solve all the problems, I doubt it would change the threat level at all. If some rogue element acquires a nuke, it's not gonna deliver it via ICBM. It will arrive via container ship into the NY Port Authority.
    The real problem I have with the "Star Wars" program, is that pols like W actually tout it as a viable entity. This lets them funnel a crap load more cash into ancillary parts of the program that have squat to do with scientific research, and are instead another way to enrich their cronies.

  • Jack the Cold Warrior says:

    Alex SL Says:
    June 7th, 2015 at 8:32 pm
    Wow, the first picture really looks like the cover of some third rate SF book…

    Here you go Alex:

    this actually wasn't a third rate SF book, it won the Hugo Award, was nominated for the Nebula Award and contains one of the first explorations of Artificial Intelligence before we even talked about AI

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