Next week, President George W. Bush heads off for his first summit with the Russians. But as he sets out to reach a new arms agreement, the strange irony is that he presides over a nuclear war machine that is strikingly similar in size and posture to the Cold War arsenal his father commanded eight years ago.
For America's missiliers - the men and women, who command our nuclear forces - that's a dilemma. Almost no one knows they exist anymore, but for 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, the missiliers continue to rehearse launching enough destructive power to bring on Armageddon. For them the Cold War never ended.
For this story, CBS News Producer George Crile secured unprecedented access to the missiliers of both countries. He and Dan Rather report on the missiliers and efforts to defuse some of the tension between the two countries.
At 1 a.m. on a pitch black night, a dense fog settled over Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. On one remote hilltop, a group of missiliers - gathered to take part in a full-blown test of American military might.
A missile was about to be launched. And missiliers, from bases all around the country, were there to take part in the event they call "The Glory Trip." Two of their colleagues were 70 feet underground in a fortified bunker in a nuclear missile launch facility. The two missiliers - Captain Rich Namath and Lieutenant Michelle Del Toro, both in their twenties, have won the honor of launching an intercontinental ballistic missile.
Nuclear launch officers have rehearsed the procedure for decades. But this night was not a rehearsal. It was a live launch, albeit without the nuclear payload.
They launch a Minuteman 3 intercontinental ballistic missile - 60 feet tall and weighing 200 tons. Built to carry three thermonuclear warheads that can hit and destroy any three cities in the world in just half an hour, the Minuteman 3 is the mainstay of America's nuclear arsenal.
Exactly 28 minutes and 39 seconds after launch, the Glory Trip ended with the three warheads, none of them armed, exploding over the Quadulan Islands in the South Pacific. According to the Air Force, all three struck right on target.
If the Cold War is over, why is the United States still doing such tests?
"The Cold War was a unique war," says Eugene Habiger, a retired four-star general who has a great deal of experience with that conflict. He began his career 40 years ago as a B-52 pilot and served on the frontlines of America's nuclear forces until he retired a year and a half ago.
"When the war ended, the loser didn't really lose. We still had this massive military might on both sides staring each other in the face," he says.
Both sides still have the capacity to destroy the planet, Habiger says. When the Cold War ended, America and Russia agreed to cut in half their arsenals of 12,000 nuclear weapons. But soon enough, relations with Russia began to disintegrae, and no further reductions were authorized.
This dismayed Habinger, who in 1996 was put in charge of the United States' nuclear missiles. Four years ago both sides had about 6,000 nuclear warheads each, he says. Since then, there have been no decreases. "The fact that we have not been able to get down to lower and lower levels of nuclear weapons is troubling to me," he says.
For the men and women working at a missile silo hidden in the wheat fields of Wyoming, this destructive power is a daily reality. "What we could do is possibly end civilization as we know it," says Captain Bob Highley. "And that's not something we all want to do. And being rational professionals, we do everything in our power to prevent that."
The 10 missiles in Highley's silo each carry 10 warheads. Just one thermonuclear warhead - the kind America uses to arm its ICBMs - carries more destructive power than 20 of the atomic bombs that destroyed Hiroshima.
"It's fairly quiet on alert, so you have a lot of time for reflection," Highley says. "So we'll sit there. And we might talk about sports; we might talk about a movie we just saw. But there's something inside of us that just tells us that we need to look at why we are here."
Keeping America nuclear ready costs $28 billion dollars a year.
If there's one event that underscores how little things have changed since the Cold War ended, it's a celebration that brings together rival teams of missiliers, each with its own mascots, from bases across the country. Teddy Roosevelt and his rough riders from Minot, the missile base in North Dakota are pitted against the Mountain Man from Maelstrom in Montana. The teams compete to show who is best prepared - to launch a nuclear war.
The missiliers know that their old mission hasn't changed - that America's nuclear forces are still on alert. "There is only one thing that can bring the United States to its knees, as we know our great nation today," Habiger says. "And that's that nuclear capability that the Russians possess."
Halfway round the world, 30 minutes as a missile flies, Russia also has a secret nuclear world. Russia may be bankrupt but it still finds money for a brand new intercontinental ballistic missile: the Topol M.
In 1999, Crile went along as Russian missiliers went through a drill. A truck with a missile launcher moved through the woods on full-combat alert - ready to stop, tilt its rockets to the sky and launch within minutes of receiving an order.
Habiger says that the Topol M is a very accurate missile, capable of hitting a U.S. city in less than 30 minutes when launched from Russia. Both sides can launch their missiles within minutes, he says.
The Russian drill resembles the United States'. Two Russian missiliers practiced the rapid launch of 10 ICBMs with 100 warheads - just as their American counterparts do.
General Habiger and his Russian counterpart take bold seps to decrease nuclear arms. Find out how in A Top-Secret Exchange Program.
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