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HAFB fix-it shop gives old missiles a new life

Cold War may be over, but business is better than ever

SHARE HAFB fix-it shop gives old missiles a new life

HILL AIR FORCE BASE — He's the Mr. Goodwrench of Armageddon.

Air Force Col. Ben Overall runs the nation's only repair shop for land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles, 25 miles north of Salt Lake City.

The Cold War may be over, but "our workload is growing," says Overall, 51, an aerospace engineer and commander of the ICBM System Program Office.

Because defense contractors no longer make the Minuteman or Peacekeeper missiles, Overall has the added responsibility of making sure the stockpile remains working.

The ICBM shop swaps parts and engines and refurbishes missiles for active duty in underground silos in Montana, Wyoming and North Dakota.

Overall supervises 850 workers, mostly civilians — mechanics, electricians, engineers and others — who maintain the nation's nuclear defenses.

Hill Air Force Base has been refurbishing ICBMs since Norton Air Force Base closed in 1994, shifting the work from California. Hill is extending the life of Minuteman III missiles, introduced in 1970, by another 20 years.

The aging missiles arrive by truck or train after their warheads are removed. They go to an X-ray lab first, then get torn down and rebuilt with new engines or guidance systems.

The exacting repair work allows no margin for error. It's also potentially dangerous, like playing with dynamite: An errant spark, flash or static electricity could trigger a missile's engine. Work bays shut down when lightning strikes outdoors because of the risk.

Inside the shops, missiles lie on metal rails with a heavy, knifelike wedge at the end of the track. If an engine accidentally fired, the wedge would cut the missile lengthwise and burn it in a messy conflagration outside a garage door.

Secrecy has eased at Hill, where Russian inspectors can visit with 12 hours notice and are greeted with courtesy signs — "Watch your head" — in their language.

But the repair shop tidied up and put away classified secrets for an Associated Press visit.

ICBMs have never been fired in anger, and the Cold War may be over, but the bomb shop has never been busier.

Unfired missiles don't last forever, and much of the Cold War-vintage inventory is reaching the end of its useful life. U.S. treaties with Russia have had little effect in reducing the world's biggest nuclear stockpiles.

The U.S. arsenal consists of 7,200 nuclear warheads.

The first land-based ballistic missiles were deployed in the United States in 1962, and the main engine on a missile lasts for about 30 years. Over time, an engine's rubbery fuel propellant can dry and crack, which could result in uneven firing and could destroy a missile in flight.

The ICBM shop sends 51,000-pound engine casings to a remote part of northern Utah where defense contractor Thiokol Propulsion washes out the rubbery compound with high-pressure water and pours new chemical fuel in reused titanium and steel shells.

At Hill Air Force Base, workers reassemble and test missiles without firing them to make sure they work as advertised.

It's expensive and time-consuming — a missile can take two years to retrofit — and the effort is spent even though the threat of full-scale ballistic warfare seems to be fading.

In fact, the military now fears "irrational" adversaries or terrorists gaining nuclear know-how and not caring if their countries get blown to bits in a ballistic cross fire. It considers "rogue" states like North Korea or Iraq a possible threat.

The U.S. defense is costly. Maintaining and refurbishing Minuteman missiles and the more lethal Peacekeepers, which were introduced in 1986, costs more than $500 million a year.

On Wednesday, the Air Force destroyed a missile silo in Barnes County, N.D., one of 150 North Dakota silos being imploded as part of an agreement with Russia.

But the Air Force expects to keep ICBM silos on full alert indefinitely at bases in Cheyenne, Wyo., Great Falls, Mont., and Minot, N.D.

Hill Air Force Base uses its own silos and a command bunker to test mechanical and electronic changes. It doesn't fire missiles but could if ordered.

It takes two people to retrieve a launch key from a vault, and four hands working computers and a simple program to fire a missile that can reach halfway around the world in 30 minutes, flying more than 500 miles above the earth's surface.

Operators work 24-hour shifts inside a concrete-and-steel chamber 60 feet underground with one bunk and a television set.

They open a blast door four feet thick and strap themselves to padded seats that slide along metal tracks in front of a bank of computers and controls.

Maj. Jenny Thompson, 35, wouldn't hesitate to push the final button — actually, twist a key and a knob. A former missile combat crew member, she says she'd know if she got the presidential order that hostile missiles would already be flying her way.

"I might as well take someone out with me," Thompson says.