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Phase-Out / Abandonment of the SRMSC

Phase-Out / Abandonment of the SRMSC

(Excerpt from Historic American Engineering Record, HAER No. ND-9)

IV. Stanley R. Mickelsen Safeguard Complex

E. Phase-Out / Abandonment of the SRMSC

In an informative 1969 article on Safeguard, a question was posed concerning the mission's fate should arms talks proceed. In the reply the author observes that: "Most likely deployment will be slowed, but not halted." However, this was not the case. In early 1975, there were indications that the SRMSC might be closed and dismantled, and the ABM system found itself embroiled in yet more polemics:

Even more dangerous is the action now contemplated by the Congress of closing down the one ABM site authorized by the SALT I Treaty....Yet Congress is heading toward a unilateral scrapping of this key defense system, already paid for, on the flimsy grounds of saving some operational funds and the fuzzy hope that Soviet restraint will make it unnecessary.

Such predictions proved prescient. Grand Forks had proven too costly to justify continued operation in the face of the Soviet MIRV's; there was also the question of its feasibility, that is, how a system that had worked only in tests would respond in actual battle, short of instigating nuclear war. It was described as a "highly complex machine stretched out over the entire nation." At any rate, it was argued that the effectiveness of one site was questionable and there was, under treaty guidelines, no way to bolster it. Basically, they had proved its potential, but couldn't afford to maintain it.

The MIRV's were part of the technological advances that would have challenged the Safeguard system. Despite the treaty, the Cold War still remained the impetus for continued research and development in both the East and the West. For example, efforts were to continue on addressing effective defense against the MIRV's. While Safeguard used the technological advances developed either for the system itself or from earlier programs, the constant battle to avoid technical obsolescence continued.

Approximately 48 days after the SRMSC was fully operational, the Senate voted to concur with a House decision to close it down. The House's original decision did not provide for the transition period, but the Senate allotted $19 million. Still, FY76 ABM funding was cut drastically, narrowed down by several million dollars. Furthermore, remaining monies were to be used for the purpose of the "expeditious termination and deactivation of all operations" at Grand Forks, effectively moth balling the system. Funds for the PAR were excluded. The decision to close the SRMSC was made to comply with guidance in Title III of the Operations and Maintenance Section of the FY76 Defense Appropriations Bill, effectively eliminating 433 military and 108 civilian authorized spaces by 30 September 1976.

It was not to be an easy dismantling. In a 1975 editorial in The Nation, Carey MacWilliams observed,

Safeguard played havoc with the lives and fortunes of the people of Langdon, ND......1,500 persons, about a third of Langdon's population, were employed in connection with the ABM. Many others had found work and business opportunities in the influx of capital surrounding the Safeguard's construction. Workers migrated from all over the country for jobs on the missile site. When Safeguard closes.....Langdon will be hit by a depression made in Washington.

One Pentagon official, obviously displeased at the turn of events, commented that the House "wanted the system completely torn down and wheat growing at the site." Another feared the collapse of Grand Forks would extend into other areas of BMD and become a "national disaster."

By February 1976, the first rumblings of economic hardships to come in the SRMSC area were being felt. In Cavalier and Pembina counties, unemployment rose to 7.5 and 8.6 percent, respectively. This put both towns above the overall North Dakota rate; up to that time Cavalier had usually been lower. It was thought that these February 1976 rates represented early indications of unemployment associated with Safeguard realignments. There was an approximate loss of $1.3 million in regional procurement, primarily affecting Langdon, Walhalla, and Grand Forks.

There followed a major population loss in the region, whereupon the tax base was severely depleted. Local populations experienced a major drop, as evidenced by the following figures: Langdon, 45%; Elton, 43%; Nekoma, 49%; Osnabrock, 40%; Cavalier, 43%; Mountain, 55%; and Walhalla, 23%. Direct effects included decreased local procurements of goods and services by base and base payrolls. Indirect influences meanwhile were felt in the decrease in retail trade and personal services needs. A local official stated, "Had they planned for the "Boom-Bust" cycle.....things would've been left at a level that their resources could have handled.....(instead) they were left with bonded indebtedness...." For example, one town had installed a new water system during the boom, but after the closure could not afford to hire a technician to read the meters. Also, in some areas, telephone switching centers had been built, with no money "up front," as it were. Companies that had anticipated recuperating their capital from the monthly phone bills were left in a poor position. As a result of the hardship, several claims were made against the Federal Government. Of the 126 processed, complaints were as diverse as radar interference with television reception and garage door openers, pastures ruined by the diversion of water flow, and even the contention by one resident that trucks entering and leaving SRMSC had turned her laundry yellow.

According to Delmar Lewis, Langdon School Superintendent, the area schools were severely impacted; enrollment fell by approximately 50 percent after closure of the SRMSC. In a poll conducted by North Dakota State University, it was observed that businesses that had extended themselves too far financially were predominately restaurants and groceries who intended to cater to the new military community. Anyone who had borrowed money to finance prospective business did not have the requisite funds to pay their debts once the boom abruptly terminated. Conversely, many expanded utilities precluded financial disaster, remaining intact by servicing the needs of other, smaller communities in their vicinity.

Adjustments in downgrading, according to some, were just as difficult as the adjustment upward had been. Langdon's mayor, John MacFarlane, had choice words for the project in an interview with William K. Smith of the New York Times: "We didn't ask them to come." Langdon won't easily forget Safeguard, even if it eventually recovers from the shock of its withdrawal. The town's one permanent change, the Mayor told Stevens, was its loss of confidence in the government in Washington.