A History of Nuclear Weapon Storage in Montana

Sam Werner
March 12, 2017

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2017


Fig. 1: A nuclear missile launch facility under construction near Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana in the early 1960s. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

During the Cold War, the United States had nuclear missile silos all over the nation, and Montana is one of the states whose physical evidence of nuclear warhead storage serves as a reminder of the Cold War and the potential for disaster, a memory that still rings true today. In Montana, Malmstrom Air Force Base, located near the city of Great Falls, was the epicenter of nuclear warhead silo construction (Fig. 1). [1] After the Cold War, treaties led to efforts to decrease ICBM (Intercontinental Ballistic Missile) warheads across the country. [2] Malmstrom Air Force Base remains a location where fifty since-emptied ICBM silos have just been destroyed as part of the effort to change America's nuclear stockpile. Montana has been intertwined with the United States' nuclear history, and remains part of the story today.

Malmstrom Air Force Base and Nuclear Weapon Storage

At the time of the Cold War Era, Malmstrom Air Force Base was home to over two hundred IMCB's and silos (Fig. 2), but legislation has made it so changes have occurred over the last fifty years. [3] Previously, Malmstrom was one of just three locations that shared five hundred ICMB warheads, a number that has since shrunk due to global efforts to reduce nuclear warheads after the signing of the Moscow Treaty in 2002. The base in Great Falls, Montana was one of the epicenters of nuclear missile storage for decades, and it took until the turn of the century for change to be set into motion. [3] The weapons housed at Malmstrom are called Minuteman III warheads, a specific type of ICBM that can have up to three warheads, as opposed to the long-outlawed ICBMs called the Peacekeepers. [3] Although the military has been pursuing a replacement for the Minuteman III missiles for some time, they are still the current type of missile included in military strategy that involves nuclear stockpiles and and speaks to America's omnipresent goal of global dominance. Although views of nuclear power and how it should be involved with global politics are changing alongside the number of warheads, Malmstrom Air Force Base and Montana have been important factors in supporting the diplomacy of the United States on a global scale.

The Minuteman III Warhead and the START

Fig. 2: Inside view of a nuclear missile silo like those seen across Montana. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Every Minuteman III missile initially contained three warheads. [3] Across the US, this added up to a total of 1,500 warheads in total at the military's disposal. [3] In 2001, to meet the START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) limit of 6,000 warheads, the United States removed two warheads from each of the one hundred-fifty Minuteman missiles at an Air Force Base not far from Malmstrom, which meant that the Minuteman III force shrunk down to 1,200 total warheads. According to Amy F. Woolf, a specialist in nuclear weapons policy, "During the downsizing process, the Air Force also removed and destroyed the bulkhead, the platform on the reentry vehicle, so that, in accordance with START rules, these missiles can no longer carry three warheads". [3] Woolf's insight into START and its affect on nuclear stockpiles across the United States highlights some key technologies related to the Minuteman warheads. Before diplomatic efforts led to changes in the warheads themselves, they all contained three warheads, which meant either a greater amount of damage upon impact than a basic missile, or the ability to break off and hit three different targets after launch. Woolf also mentions the "bulkhead," which is part of a technology that streamlines how the missile uses its nuclear capabilities while heading downwards upon a given target.

© Sam Werner. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] H. M. Kristensen and R. S. Norris, "US Nuclear Forces, 2014", Bull. Atom. Sci. 70, No. 1, 85 (2014).

[2] R. S. Norris and H. M. Kristensen, "U.S. Nuclear Forces, 2009," Bull. Atom. Sci., 65, No. 2, 59 (2009).

[3] A. F. Woolf, "U.S. Strategic Nuclear Forces: Background, Developments, and Issues," Congressional Research Service, RL33640, September 2016.