Montana is famous for its empty plains, wild river canyons, and its status as the home of one of the country’s three publicly known large-scale nuclear missile silos.
So when a suspected Chinese spy balloon was spotted in the skies of the “big sky state,” it didn’t take long for analysts to suggest the most likely target: Malmstrom Air Force Base, dubbed America’s “doomsday” base.
“Montana plays a critical role in national security by hosting nuclear missile silos at Malmstrom AFB,” Senator Steve Daines wrote in a letter to the Pentagon, raising the alarm Thursday.
Due to its location in the west of the country, the air base was identified in the 1950s as an ideal place to base Soviet-trained missiles.
Today, the U.S. Air Force maintains 150 Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles spread over 13,800 square miles of central Montana, making it the largest nuclear weapons complex in the Western Hemisphere.
Malstrom Air Force Base in Montana houses 150 Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles, which can be airborne in less than four seconds from a launch command
Malmstrom Air Force Base is located in Cascade County, Montana, USA. It is located about seven miles from the Great Falls and is home to the 341st Missile Wing
“We are the guardians of doomsday,” a commander wrote in 2013. “That is no exaggeration.”
The three bases together house the country’s arsenal of 400 Minuteman III missiles.
The silos in Montana are operated by the 341st Missile Wing, whose mission is to “deadly combat capability by launching precise, long-range nuclear strikes in the blink of an eye.”
It came closest to that during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
In 1962, when a US U-2 surveillance plane spotted Soviet military personnel deploying intermediate and medium-range missiles across Cuba, President John F. Kennedy had to react.
He imposed a naval blockade of the island and ordered Montana’s Minuteman I missile to be placed on alert.
But they were so new that engineers had only just finished building their launch control facilities. No one was quite sure if the systems would work properly.
Nevertheless, on October 27, 1962, the first Minuteman was alerted.
A Launch Control Facility under construction near Malmstrom in the 1960s. During the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, missiles were placed on alert
Airmen from the 341st Missile Maintenance Squadron inspect cable connections of an ICBM during a Simulated Electronic Launch-Minuteman test in September 2020
“Montana plays a vital national security role by hosting nuclear missile silos at Malmstrom AFB,” Senator Steve Daines wrote in a letter to the Pentagon, raising the alarm
Why would China launch a ‘spy balloon’ over Montana? Beijing suspected of investigating ‘Cold War script’
The detection of the suspected Chinese spy balloon over the United States sparked speculation that Beijing was mounting a joint surveillance effort near sensitive military sites.
China has claimed the balloon is a civilian airship blown off course, but analysts have said the balloon could be a Cold War-era espionage technique deployed in US airspace.
Balloons have been used as an espionage technique since the 1950s – including by the US. But due to advances in technology, modern models are harder to detect and have much better monitoring capabilities.
The balloon currently hovering over the US is about the size of three canisters. It is believed to have flown over the Aleutian Islands in the North Pacific and then crossed Canadian airspace to the United States.
One model suggests it will likely drift further into the Midwest and over Missouri on Saturday, but the nature of the device and changing weather make accurate prediction difficult.
The balloon is so large that destroying it would rain debris and endanger the safety of people on the ground, US officials said.
The balloon’s path crosses “a number of sensitive locations,” a senior Pentagon official said when asked about the presence of nuclear missile silos in Montana.
“Clearly they are trying…to fly this balloon over sensitive sites…to collect information,” the official added.
However, the balloon’s technology is not “revolutionary,” and the observations are no better than what China can see through other means, such as its spy satellites.
China’s claim that the balloon is a civilian weather-measuring device is not entirely unfounded. Such balloons, which may resemble a monitoring device, are common tools for meteorological research.
China has been sending such balloons over the United States in recent years, the senior Pentagon official said.
A day late, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev climbed down and ordered the Soviet missiles removed from Cuba.
Today, the missiles have been upgraded to their third incarnation, all guarded by some 3,300 military personnel and 600 civilians.
Each missile is 60 feet long and weighs nearly 80,000 pounds, with a range of 8,700 miles.
When the launch command comes, it would fly from the silo into the air in less than four seconds, climb 70 miles above Earth before reaching its target on the planet’s side in 25 minutes before unleashing twenty times the explosive force of the bomb that killed 140,000 people in Hiroshima.
For now, defense officials are downplaying the idea that the high-altitude balloon could collect important information.
But it has already caused drop-lomatic friction.
On Friday morning, Antony Blinken postponed his planned trip to China, where he was due to meet the country’s leader, Xi Jinping.
Although the US prepared fighter jets, including F-22s, to shoot down the intruder, the Pentagon ultimately decided not to intervene because it could create a debris field large enough to endanger people below.
However, a defense official told the Associated Press that it was about Montana’s missile fields, but the US determined it had only “limited” value in terms of providing information that China could not obtain with other technologies, such as spy satellites.
Republican leaders and former President Donald Trump have called for the balloon to be brought down.
Canada also monitored a “potential second incident” on Friday as officials tried to determine if a separate sighting was the same balloon.
Former Defense Secretary Mark Esper, who served under Trump, accused China of a “brazen act.”
He told CNN that the US'[bring] so we can capture the equipment and understand exactly what they are doing. Do they take pictures? Do they intercept signals?’
“If that doesn’t work, I’d definitely shoot it down, provided there’s no risk to people on the ground.”
Esper said it was a “big concern” that the balloon was flying close to missile fields and strategic bomber bases.
US Senator Marco Rubio, the top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said the balloon was alarming but not surprising.
“The level of espionage targeting our country by Beijing has become dramatically more intense and brutal in the past 5 years,” Rubio said on Twitter.
A model of the path taken by the balloon suggests it originated in central China and then entered continental United States airspace over Alaska and through Canada
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has canceled a trip to China, including a meeting with President Xi Jinping, after the balloon was discovered earlier this week