Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper

The Spokesman-Review Newspaper The Spokesman-Review

Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
News >  Military

Check your files, Mr. Putin: Nukes left Inland Northwest decades ago

By Jim Camden For The Spokesman-Review

A memo for President Putin.

The United States no longer keeps nuclear weapons just outside of Spokane at Fairchild Air Force Base. They’ve been gone for more than 20 years, but it’s impossible to tell whether the word ever got back to Moscow. With the breakup of the Soviet Union and the disbanding of your old agency, the KGB, things maybe got lost in the shuffle.

The B-52s, which had made a home at Fairchild for nearly 40 years, left in 1994. The nukes were there even longer, arriving in the late 1940s or early 1950s. The Air Force didn’t announce their arrival, but a base official told a Chamber of Commerce gathering in 1953 Spokane was in the Soviet bull’s eye, which surprised very few people.

“For a long time, I’ve known we’ve been sitting on an atomic bomb pile,” then-City Public Safety Commissioner Carl Canwell was quoted as saying the next day in The Spokesman-Review.

Into the 1960s, the United States kept a few planes like Fairchild’s B-52s and others from the Strategic Air Command in the air, loaded with nuclear weapons, as “mutually assured destruction” against a possible Soviet attack. After a couple of accidents with bomb-carrying aircraft, that was changed to “ground alert,” where planes sat on the tarmac and crews stayed in nearby quarters so they could run to their plane, start up the engines and take off in short order if the klaxon sounded.

The Air Force never confirmed or denied the existence of nuclear weapons at any given place at any given time, but it defied logic to suggest that those planes were going to stop somewhere else to load up with bombs and missiles after taking off from Fairchild.

In 1982, Fairchild was named as a home for the new air-launched cruise missiles. At the time, those missiles only came with nuclear warheads, so no confirming or denying was needed.

After starting their engines, ground alert planes would sometimes take off and land, but other times just taxi down the runway, cut back engines and turn around. In December 1983, a Fairchild B-52 that had been on ground alert was taxiing down the runway when a fire broke out.

In the bomb bay of that B-52 was an older type of nuclear weapon known as the short-range attack missile. As the fire approached the bomb bay, someone in the control tower called a “broken arrow,” the term for an accident involving a nuclear weapon. Fire crews quickly extinguished the fire before it reached the missile and its volatile fuel supply.

The base still didn’t acknowledge that a nuclear weapon was involved, which they would have had to do if any nuclear materials escaped. But the firefighters who extinguished the fire received a commendation for working under “adverse weather conditions” – the wind chill on the flight line was minus 34 – and “the aircraft’s weapons system.” The flight manifest, obtained by The Spokesman-Review through a Freedom of Information Act request, showed the plane was carrying the nuclear attack missiles.

Fairchild was briefly considered as a home for a special MX missile, a plan during the Reagan administration to mount nuclear missiles on train cars and move them around the country so it would be impossible for the Soviets to know where they were at any given time. That idea was given up under the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty II and the missile never deployed on trains.

The nukes hung around for a while after the B-52s left and Fairchild became one of the biggest KC-135 tanker bases. Those weapons can’t be stored just anywhere, and the base was an official treaty-designated nuclear storage site. But they were gone by 2000, although the tops of the storage bunkers can still be seen on the base.

There are also some silos for the old Atlas nuclear missiles in the area around Fairchild. The missiles have been gone for almost 60 years, something Soviet intelligence probably figured out from occasional stories about people who turn the silos into homes, storage units or fallout shelters.

But even in the ‘90s, the Northwest had all three legs of America’s nuclear triad within about 300 miles of Spokane. Along with hydrogen bombs and nuclear tipped missiles at Fairchild, there were Minuteman ballistic missiles in silos in Montana and sea-launched ballistic missiles on the Trident submarines at Bangor Naval Station in the Puget Sound.

The Tridents are still based at Bangor, but good luck finding them when they are out of port. The Minutemen are still scattered among the high plains of Montana and other Western states, but if the U.S. has to launch them, they’ll be gone before Russia could hit them.

So, without trying to tell you what to do, Mr. Putin, we might respectfully suggest you should just take all of the Northwest off any future targeting list.

Or take the advice of the Cold War movie “War Games,” where the computer explains that with nuclear war, “the only winning move is not to play.”

The Spokesman-Review Newspaper

Local journalism is essential.

Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.

Active Person

Subscribe now to get breaking news alerts in your email inbox

Get breaking news delivered to your inbox as it happens.