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Sam Lair: Utah can have a role in stopping another generation of ICBMs

Making Utah the target of a nuclear first strike is not something we want.

(J. Willard Marriott Library, University of Utah) MX missile protesters in Salt Lake City in this undated photo.

Utah has a rich and significant relationship with some of the most destructive weapons ever created, which is worth tracing, especially as contentious debates over a replacement for the current missile, the Minuteman III, are underway.

This expensive and unnecessary modernization, coming on the heels of a pandemic we have only started to recover from, is yet another example of bureaucrats prioritizing defense spending over the safety of the people of Utah, and the country.

Utah’s involvement in intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) infrastructure began with the deployment of Minuteman I by the Kennedy administration, replacing older Atlas and Titan missiles with a new missile with faster response times. Beginning in 1960, Hill Air Force Base in Ogden helped assemble and sustain the Minuteman I force, as well as monitoring the motors.

In addition to building and keeping-up the Minuteman fleet, the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations studied deploying Minuteman I on rail out of Hill. Putting missiles in train cars would make them harder for the Soviets to track. Two squadrons of these train-carried missiles were slated to operate out of Ogden, with tests conducted to determine feasibility and reaction time. While ultimately cancelled by Defense Secretary Robert McNamara in 1961 due to cost and a preference for the Polaris submarines, the rail-based Minuteman foreshadowed future controversies over mobile basing of ICBMs in Utah.

Utah took center stage in a vigorous national debate during the late 1970s and early 1980s over the Peacekeeper, then known as MX for “Missile, Experimental.” The justification for MX was that Minuteman missiles were too vulnerable, stationary in silos and unable to escape a hypothetical Soviet first strike. Thus, MX needed to be mobile, to elude and confound attack.

While many incredible ideas for mobile MX were examined, including dirigibles, hovercrafts and riverboats, a popular option was the “racetrack.” It was a shell-game, using 200 racetracks with 23 reinforced shelters each, with an ICBM dashing from shelter to shelter for protection. According to defense planners, the Soviets would need 9,200 nuclear warheads to destroy all 4,600 shelters. These racetracks were to be built across southern Utah and Nevada in an area the size of Pennsylvania.

This absurd gimmick was defeated by an unusual coalition from Utah, concerned about making Utah a nuclear target for the Soviets. The first group was anti-war leftists, who did not want an expansion of the ICBM force in principle, especially in their home state. Second was conservative ranchers, concerned about the plan’s impact on Utah’s natural resources and grazing land.

Third, and potentially most significant, was The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The leadership publicly opposed it, arguing the Mormon pioneers wanted Utah to be a “base from which to carry the gospel of peace,” and MX was incompatible with that vision. This had considerable sway with the large Mormon populations of Utah and Nevada, helping shift public opinion, ultimately pressuring senators and President Reagan into cancelling the scheme in 1981.

A similar controversy has arisen regarding the replacement of Minuteman III with a new ICBM, the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD). This project has been touted by the “ICBM Caucus,” a collection of senators from states with ICBM bases and Utah, as bringing economic benefits to Utah and bolstering the U.S.’s ability to deter adversaries. Despite its bureaucratically impressive sounding name, this system will likely accomplish neither.

While this project will bring jobs to Utah, it trades-off with more economically beneficial options. The Costs of War Project concluded that “for the same amount of spending, clean energy and infrastructure create 40 percent more jobs than the military, healthcare creates 100% more, and education 120% more.” At a time when many in Utah are struggling due to the pandemic, investing in domestic infrastructure that puts our future first is the best way to create more economic opportunities and help people back on their feet.

Furthermore, GBSD is dangerous for Utah and will not help deter adversaries. First, ICBMs are not essential for deterrence, as retaliation for any attack is assured by survivable missile submarines. Moreover, silo-based ICBMs like GBSD encourage adversaries to strike the U.S. first due to their vulnerability, increasing the propensity for miscalculation and accidental launch based on false alarm or spoofed data. False alarms are more common than many think, averaging about three “moderately serious” incidents per week between 1977 and 1984. That creates an unacceptable risk of nuclear conflict in which Utah would likely be targeted, as it hosts essential ICBM infrastructure.

The GBSD Systems Directorate would be housed at Hill, serving as the “central operating location” for the missiles. GBSD, championed by Sens. Mitt Romney and Mike Lee and Reps. Blake Moore and Chris Stewart paints a nuclear target for Kim Jong-Un, Vladimir Putin, or others, on Utah’s back, inviting unimaginable horror on innocent Utahns.

This situation is not irreversible, you can push back against the ICBM caucus. Multiple bills in congress would protect Utah from nuclear harm and buttress our economy. The Investing in Commonsense Ballistic Missiles Act introduced by Rep. John Garamendi, D-California, would prohibit funding for GBSD for 10 years, protecting our community from being caught in a nuclear crossfire. Call your Utah representatives to help change the situation.

The defeat of MX racetrack shows we can succeed if we work together, creating coalitions to fight for a safer future.

Sam Lair

Sam Lair, Salt Lake City, is a fellow with Beyond the Bomb, a national campaign that supports nuclear nonproliferation through intersectional activism.

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