AP National Security Writer
BERTHOLD, N.D. (AP) -- As a nuclear missileer with his finger on the trigger of the world's most powerful weapon, Air Force 1st Lt. Andy Parthum faces pressures few others know. He spends his workday awaiting an order he hopes never arrives: to launch nuclear-tipped missiles capable of killing millions and changing the course of history.
Parthum is one of 90 young airmen who carry out their mission not in the air but in a hole in the ground.
Across the northern tier of the U.S., pairs of missileers sit at consoles inside bomb-proof capsules 60 feet underground and linked to groups of Minuteman 3 missiles, a nuclear-armed weapon whose first generation President John F. Kennedy dubbed an "Ace in the Hole."
The missileers' mission was born in the early years of the Cold War, when the threat of nuclear Armageddon was ever-present, yet it lives on despite the emergence of new threats like global terrorism and cyberattack and the shrinking of defense budgets.
The missileers have never engaged in combat, although the Air Force calls them combat crew members. Still, no one can exclude the possibility, remote as it may be, that one day a president will deliver the gut-wrenching order that would compel a missileer to unleash a nuclear hell that would alter world history.
"Absolutely, it weighs on your mind," Parthum, 25, said on a recent afternoon at Juliet-01, a Minuteman 3 missile launch site on a small patch of prairie 9 miles from the village of Berthold and about 25 miles west of Minot Air Force Base, whose 91st Missile Wing controls 150 of the nation's 450 Minuteman missiles.
It may come as a surprise to some that the Air Force still operates intercontinental ballistic missiles, or ICBMs. And therein lies part of the problem for missileers, who feel underappreciated in a military that has long since shifted its main focus.
Parthum, however, says he takes pride in his role and accepts its importance.
"It's something that's a little abstract, so that could be hard for people, I can see that," he said. "But once you understand that you're providing the backbone, the bedrock for United States nuclear deterrence then . it's a lot easier to appreciate, I think."
Parthum, a native of Centreville, Virginia, and his crewmate, 23-year-old 2nd Lt. Oliver Parsons of Shawnee, Kansas, showed visitors around the small launch control center where they were several hours into a 24-hour watch over a group of 10 missiles.
It's a sometimes tedious duty the Air Force calls "standing alert." Some say their biggest challenge is staying alert.
Missileers, typically 22- to 27-year-old lieutenants and captains, work in pairs, with a relief crew arriving every 24 hours. A missileer generally does two "alerts" a week. It was Parthum's 118th. (He keeps track.)
It's not hard to see why some missileers find it hard to adjust to life under the prairie. An 8-ton blast door seals their launch control center from a potential incoming nuclear detonation. Twice last year launch officers were disciplined after admitting they left the blast door open while a crewmate was asleep -- a security violation. That and other lapses in discipline, training and leadership were documented by The Associated Press over the past year, prompting Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to declare that "something is wrong."
The ICBM launch control center is actually two separate structures. An outer protective shell is made of reinforced concrete lined with a steel plate. A smaller, box-like enclosure where the missileers work, eat and sleep is suspended inside the protective shell by pneumatic cylinders called "shock isolators" attached to the shell's ceiling by heavy chains; the isolators are designed to keep the space stable in the event of a nuclear blast.
These underground command posts have changed relatively little since they were built in the early 1960s, although the Air Force recently committed to refurbishing them to make a missileer's life a bit easier. Juliet-01, the command post an AP reporting team was permitted to visit, had just been repainted and spruced up to remove corrosion caused by water intrusion, giving it what one officer called "that new car smell."
The launch center is accessible only from an above-ground building that resembles a small ranch-style home. An access shaft descends from a vestibule inside the building, which is controlled by a security team and surrounded by alarms and a chain-link fence.
Nuclear weapons duty is a deadly serious business, but it's not without room for a pinch of missileer humor. A patch on the green leather seat from which Parthum monitors a computer console linked electronically to each of his 10 Minuteman 3 missiles offers these pithy phrases: "This Round's On The House," and "Party Til You Nuke."