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The Air Force may pump $5b into Cheyenne for a new generation of nuclear weapons

The United States military is expected to spend between $4 billion and $5 billion over the next 10 to 20 years in Cheyenne to modernize F.E. Warren Air Force Base’s intercontinental ballistic missiles system. That kind of money would be significant anywhere, but especially so in Cheyenne where it could more than quadruple the typical amount of construction spending in the city.

It’s good news to locals. Dale Steenbergen, president of the Greater Cheyenne Chamber of Commerce described it as “huge dollars.”

But the local economic benefit comes as just one small piece of a project meant to overhaul the country’s nuclear weapons system at a time of rising tensions between the United States and Russia and an increasingly bellicose North Korea, which has nuclear warheads of its own. While Wyoming’s Congressional delegation and some policy makers view it as an overdue step to keep America safe, others see it as a risky gambit that could push the world closer to nuclear war.

Boon for locals

While the Cheyenne dollars will be spent on relatively non-technical upgrades like concrete pours for new missile silos and buildings to house improved communications systems for the ICBM system, they’re part of a roughly $140 billion effort to replace aging Minuteman Missiles.

The missiles, which are armed with nuclear warheads, are part of what is known as the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent, and over the summer the Air Force gave two $359 million contracts to Boeing and Northrop Grumman to develop proposals for replacing the system.

The GBSD changes are in turn part of a larger $1.35 trillion effort to modernize the United States’ nuclear weapons arsenal.

The need to modernize an aging arsenal and upgrade old equipment is not especially controversial. For example, the nuclear-tipped missiles at F.E. Warren are intended to be fired within minutes of an order from the president. Anything but the latest technology hampers that capability. The initial missiles were installed over 40 years ago.

“Our missiles were built in the 1970s,” Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson said in an August statement. “Things just wear out, and it becomes more expensive to maintain them than to replace them.”

Boeing and Northrop Grumman have three years to develop full proposals to upgrade the ICBM program at which point the Air Force will give one of them the contract to build the new system.

That’s when Steenbergen expects the economic benefits to start rolling into Cheyenne. Adding $4 billion to $5 billion to the local economy would be dramatic, he said. Construction starts — the total project value of construction begun in a given year — typically ranges between $132 million to $851 million, according to estimates by Dodge Data and Construct Connect, two of the few firms that collect such information.

He said the chamber of commerce has been in contact with both companies, encouraging them not just to hire local contractors but to consider Cheyenne as a logistics hub for the improvements that will also be made to the nuclear missile bases in Montana and South Dakota.

“We feel like Cheyenne might be a good spot,” Steenbergen said. “We have good rail service, we have interstate highways.”

Northrop Grumman GBSD vice president Carol Erikson confirmed that the company has been in touch with the chamber about the impact of the project on the local community.

Boeing did not respond to a request for comment. The Air Force was unable to provide answers to a list of questions by press time.

New power

As the United States has entered into nuclear non-proliferation treaties and agreements with Russia to reduce the stockpile of nuclear weapons in both countries, weapons development has focused on creating more powerful warheads and delivery systems to compensate for the reduced quantity.

But despite the increased efficiency of the weapons, proposals to improve the ICBM force call for maintaining the current number of missiles: 400. Wyoming’s U.S. House Rep. Liz Cheney successfully inserted an amendment into a defense spending bill in Congress earlier this year that requires the military to maintain at least that many ICBMs, a move that helps maintain F.E. Warren’s important role in Cheyenne’s economy.

“The amendment to protect the ICBM force smacks partly of parochial politics,” Michael O’Hanlon, an expert on American defense strategy at the Brookings Institution, said in August.

(Cheney said that while F.E. Warren does benefit Cheyenne, her amendment was focused solely on national security interests.)

It was also Cheney’s way of shoring up support of the nuclear triad — land-based missiles, nuclear submarines and bombers — the need for which has been called into question in recent years due to the high cost of upgrades. Some military leaders have suggested that the nation may no longer need ICBMs, or at least not as many, and could instead rely primarily on air and sea forces.

Cheney vehemently disagrees.

“We’ve got to make sure that every leg of the triad is doing the job it’s intended to do,” she said in an interview.

For Cheney, the GBSD program and the greater nuclear weapon modernization program is part of a larger priority to upgrade the entire United States military. Cheney has opposed defense spending caps imposed under federal sequestration and repeatedly emphasized the need to grow the military following what she says was a steady reduction in capability during the Obama administration.

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“The whole world of warfare has changed and is moving in new directions,” she said. “We’ve got do better.”

Cost estimates for the GBSD improvements have varied, and Steenbergen cautioned that Congress will need to appropriate the necessary funds once a proposal is complete.

Sen. John Barrasso, another member of Wyoming’s all-Republican congressional delegation, said that he supported the program. A spokesman for the final member of the delegation, Sen. Mike Enzi, said that Enzi supported the program and had co-authored a white paper last year calling for the program to be fully funded.

“Senator Enzi believes a strong national defense begins with a strong nuclear deterrent and this means a strong ICBM force,” spokesman Max D’Onofrio said in an email.

Caution urged

Despite agreement that dated elements of the ICBM program need upgraded, some experts are concerned that the improvements to the nuclear weapons program in Cheyenne and across the military may spook America’s nuclear adversaries, especially Russia, and risk sparking a nuclear war.

“The point is not about should we modernize or not,” said Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists. “It’s more about what kind of modernization is necessary.”

While he is not opposed to the idea of modernizing America’s nuclear weapons, Kristensen, with the Federation of American Scientists, is concerned that policymakers are not thinking about the goals of the effort. Many of the improvements being made to nuclear weapons may have drastic consequences for how foreign nations perceive intentions of the United States and how the American government itself considers whether to use its nuclear arsenal.

Take one example. Right now, the fuses on warheads loaded onto Minuteman missiles are set to detonate using a relatively blunt calculation related to elevation. Kristensen said that upgraded fuses are being installed on the warheads that are more sophisticated and able to take factors beyond elevation into account, making it far more likely that a warhead destroys its target even if the missile’s trajectory is slightly inaccurate.

Kristensen and two other nuclear analysts wrote an article for the prestigious Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists in March warning that upgrades like the so-called “super-fuze” was heightening the risk of nuclear conflict, especially with Russia, which might worry that the United States was preparing for a preemptive strike.

“I don’t think that the U.S. is planning for that — certainly not in the context of Russia, at all — but it can appear like that to Russia,” Kristensen said. “Modernization programs like this, they shape the perception of Russian policymakers.”

Kristensen wrote in the article that the modernization drive by both the United States and other nuclear-armed countries, including Russia, have raised the risk of an inadvertent nuclear war sparked by paranoia or misunderstanding to levels at least as high as during the Cold War.

That has convinced many, especially on the left, that nuclear war is reemerging as an existential threat to humanity. Noam Chomsky, the prominent intellectual and critic of American foreign policy, cited Kristensen’s article as evidence of this in an interview with The New York Times published over the summer.

“The significance is clear,” Chomsky said. “It means that in a moment of crisis, of which there are all too many, Russian military planners may conclude that lacking a deterrent, the only hope of survival is a first strike — which means the end for all of us.”

But not all analysts are so convinced. Michael May, a professor emeritus at Stanford University’s Center for International Security and cooperation, said in an email that the improvements being made to America’s nuclear-armed missile arsenal have been anticipated by Russia and other U.S. adversaries and is not likely to change the balance of power.

“I don’t find the modernization ‘destabilizing,’” May said. “The word is thrown around whenever some group doesn’t like a new development. The modernization program keeps the balance as it is and doesn’t change incentives on either side; it is mostly needed upkeep and, as needed, replacement of the existing force.”

Cheney, too, finds arguments for exercising restraint when it comes to upgrading the country’s nuclear weapons to fundamentally misunderstand the point of nuclear deterrence. If some see increasing the kill capacity of American nuclear weapons as risking conflict with Russia, Cheney believes weakness — not upgrading the weapons — is more provocative by leaving an opening where foreign powers could see space to attack the United States.

“It’s a flat wrong analysis,” Cheney said. “They’re much more likely to be mistaken about thinking they can take action and not face consequences if they believe our forces no longer have the capability.”

Known unknowns

If the tangible benefit of the GBSD program to Cheyenne is relatively straightforward — an economic boost — the project also comes with more abstract benefits and risks.

Steenbergen, with the chamber of commerce, is aware of the risks posed by nuclear war. But he said that living in Cheyenne has given him a new appreciation for how the United States handles its arsenal of weapons.

When he first moved to town, Steenbergen said he was surprised to see nuclear missiles being driven around Cheyenne in military convoys. If Cheney emphasizes the importance of strong nuclear weapons as a deterrent to America’s enemies, Steenbergen said that the weapons being out in the open in Cheyenne shows this theory in action.

“That transparency is just to show the world exactly what we have,” he said. “In order to get rid of our nuclear capability you have to attack the homeland and that is stabilizing for us because people know they cannot take away that threat.”

Then there’s what happens if that deterrent effect is not strong enough.

While economists regularly try to account for the negative side-effects of development, this is much easier to do when calculating traffic congestion that might result from a new convention center than it is when calculating the risk that the billions of dollars being pumped into Cheyenne might also carry a slim risk of nuclear war.

University of Wyoming economics professor Anne Alexander said that the difficulty of this calculation stems from the challenge of predicting the likelihood of nuclear war resulting from improvements to F.E. Warren. It is much easier to measure the positive impact of $5 billion being pumped into Cheyenne’s economy.

Of course, were things to go awry, the cost of those weapons being used would blot out any economic stimulus. Millions could die immediately. Infrastructure would be destroyed. Crops might not be able to grow for hundreds of years. Radioactive fallout could spread across the globe.

“Nuclear Armageddon would be devastatingly expensive,” Alexander said. “It would be more money than there’s ever been on Earth.”

10,000 square miles. Thousands of critters. One animal control officer.

SWEETWATER COUNTY — At 4 a.m., with a wild badger as her only company, Chris Thomas felt the weight of the high desert darkness.

She stood in the sand, an hour from any sizeable town. She felt minuscule among the southwest Wyoming dunes and the endless sagebrush surrounding them, unprotected from the disgruntled juvenile badger she was attempting to relocate from the Rock Springs mall. In the dead of night, the hills seemed to have eyes, to be watching her. The small woman was deeply alone.

Solitude is nothing new for Thomas. Most days she enjoys patrolling wide-open spaces as Sweetwater County’s only animal control officer. But the work gets lonely sometimes, especially since the sheriff’s office eliminated the other animal control position earlier this year due to budget cuts.

“Now it’s just me,” Thomas said Wednesday, as she navigated her white sheriff’s office truck down County Road 85 toward a chemical plant west of Green River.

When Thomas took the job in April 2007, the sheriff’s office employed two animal control officers to pick up stray animals, relocate wildlife in precarious situations and work on cases of neglect and abuse. But the budget cuts forced the office to eliminate 10 positions, including one of the animal control officer jobs. The other animal control officer took another post within the agency, leaving Thomas to patrol the 10,000 square miles of Sweetwater County alone — a jurisdiction larger than the states of Connecticut, Delaware and Rhode Island combined.

The loss of the job hasn’t necessarily meant more work for Thomas, however. While she still responds to every animal-related call, the budget cuts mean she can’t bring all the strays into the shelter. The sheriff’s office has to pay to care for every animal its staff brings to the animal shelters in Rock Springs or Green River. The money’s simply not there. The cages in the bed of her truck are more empty than usual.

“We can no longer pick up simple strays because the money is just not there,” Sweetwater County Sheriff Mike Lowell said in August.

Unless the animal is vicious, elderly or appears sick, Thomas can’t bring it to the shelter. Often, she’ll pick up a stray and keep it in her truck, frantically making calls until she can find its owner or someone to take the animal until one can be found. So far, she hasn’t been forced to leave any animal behind. But she knows the day may come.

The inability to take every stray to a safe place is difficult for a woman who has spent her entire adult life caring for them. She feels like she’s letting down the public she serves.

“It’s a judgment call,” she said. “Is it right? Is it wrong? You can’t know until it’s all done. I do the best I can.”


Every morning, Thomas rouses her 3-year-old blue heeler rescue, Hoss, and loads him in the truck. They stop for coffee on their way on to the sheriff’s office in Rock Springs. The coffee shop employees always have a treat ready for Hoss, her unofficial partner on the job.

Each day is different for the pair, but it’s always just the two of them in the truck. Some shifts are spent solely responding to calls. Animal control officers with the Rock Springs and Green River police departments handle calls within those communities, but the rest of the county is Thomas’ responsibility. In 2016, the sheriff’s office responded to almost 700 animal calls. In the first eight months of 2017, Thomas had already responded to nearly 500 incidents.

Covering that expanse requires teamwork, she said. The agencies — from the local police departments to Wyoming Game and Fish — assist each other when needed. Like when that badger holed up outside the Rock Springs mall. Or when a herd of about 20 heifers suddenly disappeared from their corrals.

Other days give Thomas more time to patrol. She rambles around the outskirts of the two larger towns, then to the Little America rest stop, to Wamsutter, to Kemmerer. On an average day, Thomas puts between 200 and 300 miles on her truck.

She tries to respond as quickly as possible, but the reality of wide open Wyoming land means that the wait is not always short — especially when there are outside factors that make travel more difficult.

“We have two seasons out here: winter and construction,” she said. “I always tell people that I’ll be there the second I get there.”

On Wednesday, Thomas and Hoss started their afternoon with a trip to the Solvay Chemical Plant, 20 miles west of Green River. After a brief wait in the parking lot, plant workers brought out a cage containing two tiny kittens, no more than 5 weeks old. The plant had brought in some cats a few years ago to contain the rodent population, but now the feline population was becoming the issue.

Over the kittens’ plaintive mewing, Thomas explained to the workers how to most effectively catch the cats in a humane way. She instructed them to disable all traps over the weekend if nobody was around to check them.

From the window of her truck, Hoss watched protectively until Thomas sat back in the driver’s seat. He climbed up onto the center console to lick her face, tan even in early November, pressing the buttons that turn on the truck’s lights as he made his way.

“I’m glad I don’t have sirens because we’d have sirens going off all the time,” Thomas said, her black jacket covered in the blue heeler’s hair.

Thomas accidentally adopted Hoss from the Rock Springs shelter a year ago. At first, she just intended to teach him a few commands so he’d be more adoptable. Then she got attached.

Now, Hoss goes just about everywhere Thomas does. On Wednesday, he traveled in the back seat of the truck and gnawed on a one-leg Elmo stuffed animal as Thomas drove the kittens to the Rock Springs animal shelter. She talks to him throughout the day, as people do with their pets, calling him a “hot wreck” when he’s being good and a “turdblossom” when he misbehaves. All the deputies know Hoss. Even the sheriff shares his trail mix with the energetic dog.

Hoss also helps mitigate the stresses of the job. It’s been difficult to explain to the public why she can’t pick up every stray, she said. If she recognizes the animal, or finds one with a collar, she’ll simply take the pet home. But that’s not always the case.

“I do the best I can with what I’ve got and what I’m given,” she said. “Right now, I’m limited in what I can do.”


When Thomas was a girl, her parents forbade her from bringing any more animals home. She felt compelled to take care of the lost or hurt creatures she encountered around their Colorado home.

Now delivering animals to safety is her profession. Sometimes, that means she’s still taking animals home to her husband and two teenage children.

The Thomas household is home to three shelter dogs, one cat and a chinchilla — all rescues. In the past, they’ve also housed a pony that was rescued from a neglectful home.

“The joke of my house is that we’re ‘Chris’ Halfway House for Wayward Animals,’” she said with a laugh.

Thomas moved to Sweetwater County in 1994 and worked at the racetrack and as a veterinarian technician before the animal control officer position opened up. During her job interview, she was asked a blunt question: Did she think she was up for the job?

Thomas knew she would find dead animals. She knew she would have to euthanize others and deliver bad news to their owners. She knew there would be dark moments. But she knew she could do good as well.

For the past decade, she’s educated people on the responsibilities and realities of owning a pet. She’s implored potential pet owners to research the ordinances of where they live, the needs of the animal as it matures. Too often, she finds animals that were brought into homes only to be abandoned when they grew too large, or became too time-consuming.

A few years ago, Thomas helped rescue a boa constrictor from James Town, a community of about 500 just west of Green River. Someone found the snake, at least 4-feet long, curled on a sidewalk. The snake was likely seeking the warmth of the pavement as winter approached. Thomas will never know how the snake ended up on the sidewalk, but she assumes its owner didn’t realize how big it would become and released it as it matured, essentially sentencing it to death.

“They don’t survive well in the Wyoming winter,” she said. She sent the snake, named Sage, to a rescue facility in Utah, which was able to rehabilitate the creature.

Other moments on the job make her giggle. She’s spent an early morning chasing a pig that escaped from the truck bringing it to the butcher. She’s rescued ducklings from yards and pulled porcupines out of trees in residential areas. She’s repeatedly consoled interstate travelers who think the area’s wild mustangs are lost or confused domesticated horses.

But Thomas endures more difficult days as well. She once had to use a Taser on a dog after it charged her. She’s sent the cremated remains of animals lost and killed on the interstate back to their owners thousands of miles away. Like other law enforcement, she’s dealt with irate and dangerous people. Often, she’s dealing with these dangerous situations alone.

“I try to get in the truck every morning with a good attitude,” she said. “Every day I make it a goal to come home safe and sound to my family.”


The wide open land helps her navigate those frustrations. She’s come to know the seemingly inhospitable dunes and rocky crags, the imposing red stone structures that dominate the horizon. She likes being from a place where the pronghorn outnumber the people. Although she was born in Colorado, she considers herself a Wyomingite now.

The days get lonely, she admits, even with Hoss. But Thomas relishes the space, the time, the driving. It gives her time to ponder and process the day’s news, her own life.

She often muses on a society that, as far as she can tell, treats everything as expendable. She sees it in the dogs abandoned by owners who decided to move without the hassle of a pet, in the cats that are kicked out after they pee on the rug one too many times.

“Everything is so disposable now,” she said. “The reason we have animal control is because we have so many unwanted animals.”

Despite it all — the lonely drives, the constrictions on her ability to do her job, the isolation, the deaths of innocent animals — this is the life Thomas loves.

“I wouldn’t trade it,” she said. “It’s where I can do some good.”

Josh Galemore, Star-Tribune  

Sheridan senior Blayne Baker holds up the Class 4A championship trophy after the Broncs’ 28-14 victory over Natrona County on Saturday at War Memorial Stadium in Laramie.

Casper police department
Like much of Wyoming, Casper's emergency dispatch center is understaffed and overworked, review finds

The center that handles 911 calls for Natrona County is understaffed, under-supervised and overworked, according to an outside review of the Casper Police Department.

However, the problem isn’t limited to the Casper/Natrona County Public Safety Communications Center. Across the state, dispatch centers report staffing shortages, which can hamper first responders’ effectiveness.

The staffing issues can be costly. In Casper, the center paid for more than 1,000 hours of overtime in the last year.

The center is wholly operated by the Casper Police Department, but used by 12 different emergency agencies across the county. It’s staff dispatch police, firefighters and medics to incidents within the county. Additionally, the center is responsible for handling calls for Life Flight, Metro Animal Services and Wyoming Medical Center. On nights and weekends, it deals with calls for street, water and sewer departments.

Even during a down economy, attracting potential dispatchers can prove difficult. City Manager Carter Napier attributed those difficulties to the job requirements and the stress of the profession.

“Dispatchers are among the toughest positions to hire,” he said.

Casper’s dispatch center is staffed by one manager, one supervisor, one call-taker and 13 dispatchers. However, the center’s manager works at the police headquarters, according to a report published by the review body. As a result, the supervisor is responsible for overseeing 14 subordinates in day-to-day operations, according to the report. Were the center fully staffed, that ratio would jump to one supervisor per 20 subordinates.

“The ratio of one supervisor to 20 subordinates is beyond reason by itself,” the report states. “Let alone in a highly charged environment of a 24/7 emergency dispatch center.”

Six open positions at the center mean more than a quarter of its authorized staffing is not filled. As a result, the center paid for more than 1,000 overtime hours from July 1, 2016, through June 30.

A police department spokesman said that the dispatch center director was away on Thursday and Friday for training and unavailable for an interview.

The staffing issues at the dispatch center were included in a larger review of the entire department, which was released last month. It used data, officer interviews, a site visit and more to assess all aspects of the police department, from record keeping to the handling of investigations.

Widespread issue

The problems noted in the report aren’t wholly confined to Natrona County. Jackson, Gillette and Cheyenne authorities also cited staffing difficulties. Sheridan’s dispatch center is at full staffing “for the first time in quite some time,” Sheridan Police Lt. Travis Koltiska said.

In Cheyenne, 18 of 26 authorized positions are filled, according to Glen Crumpton, director of Laramie County Combined Communications Center.

The Laramie County center raised the entry pay rate by a dollar an hour two years ago and didn’t see any increase in qualified applicants. Changing hiring and testing practices likewise produced no result.

“It is a difficult task to try to fill the seats in a dispatch center,” Crumpton said.

Over the 10 years Crumpton’s been on the job, he has had staffing problems, he said. Crumpton chalked the hiring and retention problems up to the emotionally draining nature of the work.

“It’s just a unique job,” Crumpton said. “It’s hard.”

Being fully staffed allows for easy handling of large-scale events and helps with coverage of vacancies for training or sickness, Koltiska said.

Since the Sheridan center reached full staffing, Koltiska said he’s noticed that dispatchers are more capable of coordinating with various departments and assigning tasks in large-scale emergencies.

Recommended changes

The review recommends a few changes to help manage the problems that stem from staffing shortages.

Instead of paying overtime, the report recommends the police department hire part-time staff to fill in gaps and ease workloads during busy times.

Because 83 percent of calls coming to the center were not related to emergencies, the report suggests setting up voicemail extensions for individual officers and introducing an electronic phone tree.

About a third of calls coming into the center come from people looking to reach a specific officer or employee, according to an estimate cited in the report. By setting up voicemail extensions for individual officers, people could directly contact the officers who worked their cases and bypass the communications center.

An electronic phone would likewise direct non-emergency calls away from communications center employees, instead allowing callers to directly contact the department they are seeking.

The report also recommends creating a joint phone operator and receptionist position to help people walking into police headquarters. That role is largely handled by records department staff at the moment, which has a backlog of old evidence.

Napier said he was skeptical of converting a phone-only position to also include receptionist duties. That would tax an already stressed office, he said.

Otherwise, Napier said changes that would improve the efficiency of the city are welcomed. He specifically suggested expanding the department’s community safety officer program to handle receptionist work. Expansion of the community safety officer program is also recommended in the report.