Big Impact Anticipated From Missile Replacement Project in Western Nebraska

Oct. 16, 2020, 8 a.m. ·

South Chestnut Street in downtown Kimball, Nebraska (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

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The Air Force has announced plans to begin replacing missiles based in western Nebraska, with plans could have a big impact on the area.

Just off a road outside Kimball, Nebraska lies a grassy field that looks like many others in this part of the state – except for the chain link fence topped with barbed wire that surrounds an underground missile silo.

Missile silo site near Kimball, Nebraska (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

That silo can hold a Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile, capable of flying more than 6,000 miles at up to 15,000 miles per hour. They carry a nuclear warhead 25 times as powerful as the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima in World War II, killing an estimated 140,000 people.

Those missiles are about 50 years old, and now, the Air Force says, it’s time to replace them with the next generation, called the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent, or GBSD.

“The GBSD will have increased accuracy, a longer range, as well as enhanced security in terms of the missile facilities and then improved reliability in order to provide our military and our nation with an upgraded and a broad array of options, said First Lieutenant Jonathan Carkhuff, public affairs officer with the 90th Missile Wing at F.E. Warren Airforce Base in Cheyenne, Wyoming.

Warren is the command and control center for 150 missiles and support facilities that occupy nearly 10,000 square miles scattered across Nebraska, Wyoming and Colorado. About 80 of those silos are in Nebraska’s panhandle, with many concentrated around Kimball.

Daria Anderson-Faden, staff writer for the Western Nebraska Observer newspaper, says many people here welcome the missile replacement project.

Daria Anderson-Faden (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

“Kimball’s been one of those bust-boom towns you know, and so anytime there’s something that’s coming in, people get pretty excited,” Anderson-Faden said.

In the 1960s, the arrival of the missiles coincided with an oil boom in the area. Kimball’s population of just over 2,000 in 1950 boomed to almost 4,400 in 1960 and was still nearly 3,700 by 1970. Since then, it’s declined to an estimated 2,400. But now, the Air Force says it plans to establish a workforce camp in or around Kimball with modular housing to accommodate up to 2,000 construction workers and support personnel for 2-5 years.

In September, the Air Force awarded a contract to Northrop Grumman for engineering and manufacturing development for the new missiles. Construction, including infrastructure upgrades, is expected to begin around 2023.

But Sonny Porter, head of Perfection Turning, a manufacturing company in Kimball, said the project’s already having an effect on the local real estate market.

“Homes right now are selling like hotcakes here. And we were looking after a couple of rentals from friends of ours. And the people who were looking at them were all Air Force people,” Porter said.

Caitlin Williams (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

It’s not only residential real estate that’s being affected. Caitlin Williams with Home Team Realty said the missile project is also increasing interest in Kimball’s downtown retail district, which has had vacant storefronts for years.

“We have some people buying up the empty buildings downtown in preparation for that…I know some of the buyers I’ve been working with have been picking those up just to renovate so that when the missile site project comes they can have residential units available upstairs for people working on that and then hopefully bring some new businesses into town,” Williams said.

Not everyone in Nebraska is enthusiastic about missile replacement. Tim Rinne, state director of Nebraskans for Peace, objects to the strategy it’s a part of – a modernization of nuclear forces the Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation says could cost more than $1 trillion dollars over the next 30 years. Rinne said a different approach is needed.

“We need to quit junking our nuclear weapons agreements that we’ve got and (start) negotiating new ones. That’s how we’re going to get out of it. We need to back away from the brink on all of this,” Rinne said.

Last year, the United States withdrew from a treaty with Russia governing nuclear forces in Europe. And a treaty governing those in the United States is set to expire next year. But Air Force spokesman Carkhuff said the missile replacement program is merely a continuation of existing strategy.

“It’s a fundamental role of the United States’ nuclear weapons to deter attack on the United States and its allies. And we are not creating new nuclear weapons. We’re not developing new warheads or testing new weapons. Instead we’re just replacing delivery systems,” Carkhuff said.

However, according to the military, the new missiles will be able to carry new warheads when they are developed.

Greg Robinson (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

While their role in the national strategy is subject to debate, around Kimball, many people see missiles as a familiar part of the landscape. Greg Robinson is a former mayor who grew up in Kimball and now works at Larsen’s Jewelry downtown.

“For me, it’s just been a fact of life. It’s no different than having a street out there or a tree in the next yard. They’ve been here my entire life. They don’t affect anything that I do,” Robinson said.

Kimball business people like Sonny Porter, who manufactured sensors for an earlier generation of missiles, and Dave Haack, who runs Z & S Construction, hope the Air Force will contract with local firms and boost the economy. Kimball Schools Superintendent Trevor Anderson said questions remain, like how many of those 2,000 workers will bring school age kids with them, and how the local district will accommodate them.

Robinson said the town will need answers to questions like that.

“The information has been kind of sketchy on this whole thing. So I don’t know that I have a great feeling for what’s going to happen,” he said.

As the missile replacement program gets closer, people are hoping for more information on the details, and how it will affect them in western Nebraska and elsewhere.