At the height of the Cold War, a Soviet nuclear attack was a genuine threat and the United States decided that a defense program was needed that could protect the country’s own intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capabilities, particularly the Minuteman missile fields based at Grand Forks Air Force Base in North Dakota, as well as civilian population centers. In 1969, President Nixon announced the “Safeguard Program” that would consist of several Safeguard systems at various locations around the country to protect important strategic weapons assets.
The first, and the only such site deployed, was the Stanley R. Mickelson Safeguard Complex that went up in Nekoma, North Dakota, approximately 100 miles north of Grand Forks. The site was named after the Army Air Defense Command’s third commanding general, Lt. Gen. Stanley R. Mickelsen. The Safeguard complex became operational on October 1, 1975. Twenty-four hours later, Congress decided to shut the program down, deeming it militarily ineffective. Five months later, the Army began pulling the complex down. Today, a couple of buildings and a giant, hulking pyramid is all that remains of the USD 6 billion project.
The Safeguard Program, which was a direct descendent of the earlier Sentinel Program designed to protect U.S. cities against a missile attack, was a two-tiered system consisting of long-range Spartan and short-range Sprint missiles. The long-range Spartan missile was the first line of defense and was designed to intercept incoming ballistic missiles outside the Earth's atmosphere. If that failed, the high performance and high speed but short ranged Sprint missile would attempt an interception within the atmosphere. Both missiles used nuclear warheads, and they relied on destroying or damaging the incoming warhead with radiation rather than heat or blast. The time from detection to launch of the system was just six seconds.
Construction of the Mickelsen complex began in 1970. The central piece was 24-meter-tall pyramid-shaped Missile Site Radar (MSR), designed to track incoming warheads and guide the interceptors to their assigned targets. The four faces of the MSR had four circular eye-like structure that searched for targets in all directions. The MSR was supported by the Perimeter Acquisition Radar (PAR), located 25 miles northeast in Cavalier, North Dakota. The PAR, which faced north, was designed to detect incoming Soviet missiles at a range of 800 miles, just as they were passing over the North Pole, and then determine their trajectory and impact point. Thirty Spartan and 16 Sprint missiles were deployed in underground launchers. An addition 50 Sprint missiles were deployed at four remote launch sites.
On October 1, 1975, the Safeguard complex became operational, making it the first operational anti-ballistic missile system deployed by the U.S. But soon after, its drawbacks became apparent. The electromagnetic pulse generated by the detonation of the nuclear warheads on Spartan and Sprint would blind its own radars, making it impossible to detect additional incoming enemy missiles. Besides, the 1972 ABM Treaty restricted the U.S. and the Soviet Union to only one missile defense site, thus raising the issue of the system’s cost-effectiveness.
It didn’t take Congress long to realize the debacle. The next day itself, it pulled the plug on the Safeguard Program. Since then, the 100-plus underground missiles at the complex have all been removed and the pyramid sealed due to environmental concerns, only occasionally open to visitors.
In 2012, the facility was bought via auction by the a religious group called Spring Creek Hutterite Colony for $530,000. It is unclear what the Hutterites intend to do with the site. For now, it remains abandoned and unused.
Spartan missile field. Photo credit
The interior. Photo credit
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