Story by Marshall Swearingen, MSU News Service

BOZEMAN — Retired Maj. Gen. Don Alston oversaw nuclear weapons at a variety of levels during the 34 years that he served in the U.S. Air Force. At the peak of his career, before retiring in 2012, he was in command of the entire U.S. intercontinental ballistic missile alert force, a job that included operating, maintaining and securing 450 Minuteman III missiles housed in underground silos in Montana, North Dakota and Wyoming.

Minuteman III missiles — one part of the U.S. military’s nuclear “triad” that includes submarine-launched missiles and nuclear weapons carried by long-range bomber aircraft — are capable of traveling a third of the way around the Earth at supersonic speeds. Each ICBM carries a warhead at least 20 times more powerful than the two bombs that the U.S. dropped on Japan during World War II — the only time that nuclear weapons have ever been used in war.

The ICBM program was developed during the Cold War to deter the Soviet Union from using nuclear weapons to attack the U.S. According to Alston, the American nuclear arsenal still has an important role to play in preventing conflict and dampening the escalation of war. But the U.S. today faces a much more complicated world than it did in previous decades, and its nuclear weapons programs need to be re-built, he said. On April 4, Alston visited MSU and gave a presentation about nuclear issues and their relevance to Montana.

MSU News: Montana can seem idyllic and removed from the jostling of world powers and the possibility of nuclear war. Yet a third of the country’s ICBM force is stationed here. How would you describe Montana’s importance on the world stage?

Alston: If Montana were a nation, it would be the sixth largest nuclear power in the world, behind the U.S., Russia, China, the United Kingdom and France. There are nine nations with nuclear weapons. That includes Pakistan, India and North Korea, as well as Israel, which almost everyone concedes has nuclear weapons. (The Israeli government remains silent on the matter.)

Montana was the first place the Minuteman system was deployed. The first Minuteman to come on alert was during the Cuban Missile Crisis (in 1962). When President Kennedy said, “I have an ace in the hole,” that ace was in the 10th Missile Squadron at Malmstrom Air Force Base (in Great Falls).

All of the ICBM force is on alert all the time. It’s the first-strike deterrent. It’s the unblinking force of America’s strategic deterrent capabilities. That shows you how much the U.S. depends on Malmstrom.

Being around nuclear weapons and being responsible for their use sounds really stressful. How did you deal with stress?

Even when I was a 2nd Lieutenant, I couldn’t believe the Air Force was going to give me that much responsibility. I had friends who were going to be surgeons, and they hadn’t even operated on a cadaver yet, and I was on alert as a deputy missile combat crew commander. It was just huge. It got me out of bed every day. I had these jobs with awesome responsibility. There’s pressure, but it’s manageable. I think that pressure shouldn’t be diminished, because it’s a challenging job, and if we were in an emergency, you need to have been tested.

What’s the main thing you want people to take away from your presentation at MSU?

That talking about geopolitical stability is something we should be doing more of, because it’s important. It’s a vital topic, but one that can be hard to access. I want to create a dialogue about our national security and the way our nation contributes to stability on a global scale.

The argument that mankind’s weapon of ultimate destruction actually contributes to peaceful international relations might seem counterintuitive to some people. Can you explain your perspective as a military expert?

It is a paradox. There’s a lot of discussion today about ridding the world of nuclear weapons — people saying they’re evil because of the massive destructive capacity they have and that mankind has flaws. But if you look at a chart showing the percentage of the world population that has died in military conflict from 1600 until today, you’ll find that, historically, about 1-2 percent of the population died because of war. During World War II, close to 3 percent of the world’s population was killed — about 12 million people per year. And then something happened in 1945. That was the last time we had a world without nuclear weapons. Since then, we have had a period (of comparatively few casualties) that is unprecedented in centuries. I attribute that to the advent of nuclear weapons.

You’ve spoken about how the world today is much more complicated, militarily speaking, than it was during the Cold War, when the bulk of the U.S. nuclear program was developed. What are the main ways it has become more complicated?

Nuclear proliferation, as much as it hasn’t risen to the degree that President Kennedy was worried about — that there would be 25 nations within 10-15 years (with nuclear capabilities) — is still a big risk. The fundamental concern is that nuclear technology is broadly available, even if the material is still difficult to acquire.

Also, with the rise of China as a world power, we are near a point where other countries have a third major nuclear power to align themselves with. China has a credible submarine-launched ballistic missile system, and they have mobile and fixed ICBMs. They’re building a bomber, so they’ll have a triad just like us. They’re building islands with runways in the South China Sea.

What are the main investments you’d like to see in the development of a next-generation nuclear weapons program?

The Russians and the Chinese are exploring maneuverable warheads (that don’t follow a predetermined trajectory), and we need to do it too. We need to invest and keep pace with the technological development. We’re late in getting to this. The newest nuclear weapon in the U.S. was built in 1988. In we re-invest in the existing triad, I think we’ll be retaining sufficient deterrence.

The U.S. has decommissioned about 90 percent of its nuclear weapons in the past 50 years. Do you think that’s been a good thing?

Absolutely. Nuclear weapons age like anything else. We had over 30,000 nuclear warheads and the Russians had over 40,000, and it takes money to keep those weapons on the shelf. If you downsize through agreements where both powers feel secure, you retain the stability between adversaries.

Can you share something that people in the military know about nuclear weapons that most people on the outside don’t know?

(Laughs) I can’t share all the classified stuff. One thing I think most people don’t understand is that we’re employing nuclear weapons aggressively every day — without actually using them — for deterrence. That takes movement, and energy and resources, especially in Montana (where the silos are more widely spaced), in order to keep the deterrent credible. Every day we manufacture a quantity of deterrence. This is not a static mission — it’s very dynamic, it’s very busy.

Did your job overseeing nuclear weapons teach you anything that’s more broadly applicable to civilian life?

Accountability. Things go wrong with everything, even our nuclear systems — not necessarily things of catastrophic consequence, but small things. You’ve got to have systems that can recognize those problems, develop options for how to fix them, and then actually solve the problems. I could say that in a bakery. It’s obvious in the nuclear realm why we need accountability, and integrity.

Contact: Michael Becker, MSU News Service director at 406-994-4565 or