The Forgotten Pyramid of the Cold War

How a remote site in the United States is now an eerie reminder of how close we came to the end of everything…

Nekoma Missile Complex

Somewhere in North Dakota there stands a pyramid. Stark and surreal against the isolated, rural backdrop, it resembles a futuristic version of Mayan monuments like the step-pyramid of Chichen Itza. Yet this ominous structure was not built for religious or spiritual reasons. It is not some huge work of avant-garde land art. Instead, it was to have played a role in the potential end of the world. It is now one of the most remarkable examples of abandoned engineering on Earth.

THE ULTIMATE SAFEGUARD

The pyramid is the radar building of the Stanley R. Mickelsen Safeguard Complex, also known as the Nekoma Missile Complex. This is a sprawling relic of the Cold War, reminding us of the days of hair-trigger tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union. The complex housed an array of thermonuclear weapons - called Spartan and Sprint missiles - buried in silos deep within the seemingly innocent soil. But these warheads were intended - not to threaten the Communist bloc - but for defensive purposes. Specifically, to intercept any enemy missiles sent to destroy US offensive nuclear weapons in mid-air.

The Spartan missiles were the long-range line of defence, intended to take out the enemy weapons when they were still outside the planet's atmosphere. The Spring missiles, meanwhile, were shorter range, poised to take out any warheads which the Spartans missed. The whole complex, built in the 1970s, was intended to be just one of a number scattered across the United States. It was part of the Safeguard programme, an ambitious and eye-wateringly expensive anti-ballistic system which was controversial even among US politicians and academics, who vehemently disagreed on whether it would be fit for purpose.

Would it be effective against a full Soviet onslaught? Could it really prevent devastation of America's nuclear arsenal? And, in the event of a Soviet or Chinese attack, and the atomic devastation that would follow, would there be anything left worth defending? As it turned out, the whole, vast, extraordinarily pricey defence complex would prove to have been a colossal and flabbergasting waste of time.

A NUCLEAR WHITE ELEPHANT

The creation of the complex had actually come about during a period of cautious cooperation between the bitter Cold War enemies. The signing of an Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in the early 70s led to limits on how many missile complexes the rival nations were allowed. This meant the Safeguard programme had to be radically reduced in size and scope, and - after more negotiations - it was whittled down to the Stanley R. Mickelsen Safeguard Complex.

In a bizarre, blackly comic twist, it was only after billions had been poured into the site, after the strange pyramid had been erected and the nuclear missiles put into place, that officials admitted what naysayers had pointed out all along: that the Safeguard system was basically already obsolete, and its ability to protect against enemy weapons was "essentially nullified".

It became fully operational on 1 October 1975, and on the very next day the government voted to decommission it. Just some months later, in early 1976, the whole place was shut down for good. Its closure impacted the surrounding area, with military personnel abruptly departing and local workers left jobless. It has remained an empty shell ever since - a kind of ghost installation of the nuclear age, its metal innards left to decay and degenerate, the pyramid still looming large as a monument to the days of atomic brinkmanship, when the world half-expected to be obliterated by forces more awesome and devastating than history had ever witnessed.