Air Force discusses Nebraska land buys for missile site project

March 21, 2023, 5 p.m. ·

Missile launch facility maintained by 90th Missile Wing
Typical missile launch facility maintained by 90th Missile Wing (Photo: U.S. Air Force/DVIDS)

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The United States Air Force is on the verge of purchasing hundreds of acres of land in Nebraska, Wyoming, and Colorado as part of a plan to modernize its land-based nuclear missile force.

The 90th Missile Wing at F.E. Warren Air Force Base will replace Minuteman III missiles, in service since the early 1970s, with a new class of Sentinel nuclear weapons.

Public meetings are being held in all three states to share information about leasing and purchasing additional land to accommodate huge new telecommunication towers. The next is scheduled for March 27 in Pine Bluffs, Wyoming.

Map of Missile Alert Facilities and Launch Facilities on Nebraska/Wyoming border. (Image: 90th Missile Wing LGM-30 Minuteman Missile Launch Sites. (2023, March 10). In Wikipedia.
Minuteman III missile warhead undergoing maintenance.
Minuteman III missile warhead undergoing maintenance. (Photo: US Air Force/DVID)
Northrop Grumman test of Sentinel rocket motor
Sentinel motor test at the Northrop Grumman facility in Utah, March 2, 2023. (Photo: US Air Force)

The multi-billion-dollar project is the first structural overhaul of land-based nuclear launch facilities since the 1960s. In addition to upgrading the massive underground concrete silos, the Air Force will purchase additional land to locate new telecommunications towers. Environmental assessments will review the impact of construction and new facilities on the local environment.

Recently the Air Force contractor Northrop Grumman completed testing of motors powering new Sentinel missiles in Utah.

Bill Kelly with Nebraska Public Media News spoke with the project coordinator, Colonel Chris Stoppel, with the Air Force Civil Engineer Center. He calls it “a once-in-every-other-generation opportunity” for a civil engineer.

He says from the point of view of most Panhandle residents, the missile silos themselves won’t look much different.

Bill Kelly, Nebraska Public Media: We've known for some time the Minuteman missiles were due for replacement. Describe what phase of the project is underway right now when it comes to Wyoming, Colorado, and Nebraska.

Col. Chris Stoppel: We feel at the Air Force, this is the right time to be able to do a weapon system replacement of the legacy of Minuteman III.

There's a planning piece, being able to understand what is the true requirement and nature and capability that you need to have. Then there's an actual design and being able to translate that into a physical design that a contractor could later construct.

We would expect to start construction probably next year at F.E. Warren (Air Force Base). The predominance of a lot of the construction activities, however, it will be in the missile complex. That's where particularly Wyoming, Nebraska, and Colorado will, we'll see a lot of this effort. It'll start small. We expect it to be able to start probably in the 2024-25 timeframe. It’ll go on for approximately the next five years across the missile complex.

Col. Chris Stoppel
Colonel Chris Stopple, Air Force Civil Engineer Center (Photo: U.S. Air Force)

Kelly: Of the 80+ Minuteman silos already in place in the Nebraska panhandle, what changes will be made within those individual sites to prepare for the Sentinel weapons and modernize those facilities.

Col Stoppel: We're really trying to use the exact same footprint that we started back in in the 60s. So essentially, there'll be no “holes in the ground” for these launch facilities. I think from the casual observer when the final construction is completed. It'll be very similar in terms of the footprint.

There will be the construction of utility corridors to be able to put down additional cabling to improve the overall communication architecture within the missile-link complex. Within our plans, we will essentially restore those lands to their original condition.

Kelly: Then an awful lot of what's happening is just a modernization of electronics, communications, and security in support of these new missiles.

Col Stoppel: I think that's a very eloquent way to say it. At some point, our infrastructure needs an upgrade, and that's exactly what we're doing with the Minuteman IIIs. We're going through a modernization period. You can continue to repair or at some point, but continuing to repair just isn't cost-effective. The Air Force has determined that this is the right time to do a weapon system replacement.

Kelly: In addition to the necessary changes at the silo locations, there are apparently going to be major upgrades in the underground communication cable network and above-ground towers. How will that change the landscape in the area?

Col Stoppel: The intention is as we complete those utility corridors that, we will restore those lands to their original condition (they were in) before we started the construction. I believe for F.E. Warren, we are planning approximately 18 new towers. These will be approximately 300 feet tall towers. They're secured by guidelines (and) certainly they will be visible within the area. There will probably be some additional roads that will lead to those towers just to be able to provide a way to maintain those towers,

Kelly: You've begun providing information to the landowners living among that honeycomb of missile silos. The Air Force hopes to temporarily get the rights to additional land as the project is being built. There will also be land being bought, and from what I understand, that would almost double the size of the footprint of the land owned by the Air Force. What are those parcels going to be used for?

Col Stoppel: The majority of these parcels that the Air Force is seeking an interest in are going to be what we call a temporary construction easement. During the construction period, it just gives the contractor additional sufficient land to be able to put their construction equipment along this easement to be able to properly and safely construct this utility corridor.

Once the construction is completed and we've had sufficient time to be able to restore the land to their original condition, the temporary easement would essentially expire.

Now, there are some cases where the Air Force will be seeking easements in perpetuity. I think the towers are a good example. The Corps of Engineers will be acting as the Air Force's agent in these land transactions.

Kelly: That could be a very delicate process. Even when you're offering fair market value, people could be very protective of their land rights. Are these delicate discussions in some cases?

Col Stoppel: Well, I'm sure they are Bill, and you know, growing up as, as a son of a farmer in western Kansas, I'm very familiar with that. The goal of the Air Force is to be able to leave these negotiations with win/win agreements. That will take time, and we're prepared to be able to have those conversations.

The Corps of Engineers, who will be acting as the agent, will start the process by notifying landowners that will state that the government, through the Air Force, has an interest in their land. We will do an appraisal to be able to start those negotiations and try to establish a fair market value. We certainly encourage landowners to be a part of this process and this discussion. They'll have the opportunity to be able to prepare their own appraisal, and then they can share that with the Corps to be considered. It'll be a significantly large number of transactions that we're talking about.

Kelly: What if there are holdouts? Is there a 'Plan B' for some of these parcels? Or may you be put in a position where you may have to exercise some eminent domain actions and take it to court?

Col Stoppel : The Air Force does not want to have to go to something like eminent domain or what we would call condemnation. And we will do everything we can, along with the Corps of Engineers, to come to an agreement that is acceptable to both sides.

But there is a possibility that if the bridge is too far, then that is a possibility where we're the Air Force and through the US government would exercise eminent domain in order to be able to continue meeting the schedule for this program of high national security.

Kelly: The next town meeting the Air Force's hosting is March 27 in Pine Bluffs, Wyoming, right over the state line from Nebraska. You've already held one in Nebraska as well. What kind of questions are landowners asking, or what are you anticipating people asking?

Col Stoppel : A lot of the questions that we were anticipating were just, what is the process? How will I be notified if the Air Force is looking to make a land agreement? Tell me what the steps of this are. And so, we're prepared to be able to do that just like we did in the previous engagement, and we look forward to just another great event and being able to partner with the local community.

Kelly: You say this will take some time, but the Air Force is on a pretty fast track moving things forward. The goal is to try and break ground this fall. Is that right?

Col Stoppel : That's correct. That is our goal. And maybe it's a little bit of a stretch, but we want to be able to have some of these initial land agreements completed so that if the construction contractor is in a position (to) start trenching activities before winter sets in.

Air Force Security Force patrols a road near an F.E. Warren AFB missile launch facility
Air Force Security Force patrols a road near an F.E. Warren AFB missile launch facility. (Photo: U.S. Air Force/DVID)

Editor's Note: An earlier version of the article misspelled the name of Col. Chris Stoppel.