The launcher for the Atlas 576-A missile at Vandenberg Air Base, CA
Dimply-lit tunnels snake into the distance, metal steps echo with the sound of footsteps, and huge vertical drops plummet into the darkness – cavernous chambers where missiles intended to carry nuclear warheads would have once been housed. Replete with the signs of creeping decay and generally left to rack and ruin, abandoned missile bases are grim yet fascinating places to explore.
Titan I complex tunnel in Deer Trail, CO lit with eerie yellow light
These underground bunkers and silos – five American, five Soviet – serve as a reminder that there was a time, not so very long ago, when the end of the world didn’t seem like such an abstract concept. Indeed, not only did people believe nuclear apocalypse was possible – for many it seemed downright inevitable.
View down to the very bottom of Dvina Silo 4 in Kingisepp, Russia
When the tension of the Cold War hung heavy in the air, the most imminent threat to our planet was not global warming or food scarcity or even a fireball from space. It was, of course, the risk of complete and utter annihilation by nuclear weapons. And all because of two superpowers that just couldn’t seem to get along.
The damp air in this abandoned complex in Deer Trail, CO has left everything encrusted in a thick layer of rust.
In 1945, the United States of America dropped nuclear bombs on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan, effectively ending the Second World War. Well in excess of 150,000 people died in the days and months following the bombings (indeed, the figure could be as high as 246,000) and the rest of the world suddenly found itself in a new and terrifying age where an unprecedented militaristic menace loomed large.
Tunnel leading from the launch control center to Atlas F silo in Lewis, NY
Fortunately, the opposing nations that had the frightening newborn weapons at their disposal realized early on that all-out nuclear war would end badly for everyone. But this didn’t stop them from building up their arsenals – just in case.
Long tunnel in an Atlas D site at Vandenberg Air Base, CA that contains a serious quantity of power and communication cables
Military sites sprang up all over the United States and Soviet-controlled countries, incorporating the technology of their constantly evolving weaponry. As the missiles changed, so did the silos and complexes that housed them. Many of the bases moved underground, forming labyrinths of chambers and tunnels, some of them fortified against all but the most direct of nuclear strikes. However, in time these bases were decommissioned and abandoned, whether because of arms-reduction treaties or simply because their technology became obsolete.
Dilapidated looking Atlas D missile launch crib, Vandenberg AFB, CA
Today, many of these huge monuments to destruction themselves lie in ruins – enticing subjects for explorers and photographers alike, and for reasons that are obvious when you look at the amazing and evocative images shown here. It certainly feels as if the ghosts of the Cold War still haunt these deserted facilities – now rusting relics of a bygone era.
10. Titan I and II Launch Sites, Vandenberg Air Base, California
Tunnel in Titan I site that was badly damaged in a huge explosion that destroyed the rest of the site in 1960. Now water trickles in constantly and further down, the tunnel is flooded.
In its heyday, the Vandenberg Air Base, not far from Lompoc, CA, was something of a megastar in the arena of ballistic missile testing. From its immense acreage, everything from Atlas and Minutemen missiles to Titans and Peacekeepers have been launched over the years. These days, the silos of many of the older missiles lie abandoned – like those shown in these pictures, which housed Titan I and II missiles.
Fully intact silo containing a Titan 1 radome antenna
Even today, the scale of the abandoned silos at Vandenberg AFB is breathtaking. The giant structures stand as testament to the monstrous destructive power of the missiles they once housed, and yet the sense of decay also speaks of the sites’ demise. The disused complexes of the Titan I and IIs contain whole areas full of equipment from the days when they were operational – from pristine underground antenna terminals to wrecked and derelict subterranean control domes.
The silo that was the site of the accidental blast, debris from which was blown miles away
The silo pictured here was the site of a massive explosion on December 3, 1960, which occurred after the elevator malfunctioned while a Titan I missile was being lowered down from the surface. Urban explorer Jonathan Haeber had these evocative words to say of his visit to the location:
“[We] stood hundreds of feet above the old superstructure of the silo, and looked deep down into the abyss of the disaster area. Over the years, the exploded cylinder had filled with water – and that water had taken on an almost radioactive-looking green appearance, likely from algae that blossomed prodigiously within the stagnant pool. Dead animals were floating in the water. Across the silo, the equipment and fueling terminals stood. Their reinforced capstones made the gigantic, exposed cylinders look like the rooks of medieval castles.”
One of the rare spiral staircases in the base. Most were reportedly replaced by ladders and standard stairways after a fatal accident at another complex, in which a man was apparently decapitated by a revolving door.
In spite of the explosion, a total of 101 Titan I missiles were manufactured for testing at Vandenberg, ready to be sent to other silo complexes across the United States. As Titans Is were the first intercontinental ballistic missiles in the US to be kept in underground silos, working on them provided an important learning experience for crew and others stationed in the giant bunkers.
Peering down inside a decrepit looking Titan II Silo, its launch doors open and illuminated by moonlight
Although forsaken by man, the silos are not completely deserted. Wildlife such as bats and cave crickets exist in the now conveniently human-free environments. That the Titan II silos still exist at all is something of an anomaly, since most of them were destroyed during the 1980s – per the terms of the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks between the US and the USSR, according to some sources. The vacant Titan II silos are a rare gift to those who enjoy exploring such historic abandoned places.
9. Atlas F Launch Base, "Boquet 556-5", Lewis, New York, USA
A long way down: View to the bottom of the silo from level 5
The Atlas F missiles were the last and most sophisticated of the Atlas intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). What’s more, the complexes built to house them, like this one in Lewis, NY, were among the strongest structures ever constructed – built to withstand all but a direct nuclear hit.
Intriguing switches on Level 4 of the complex
The Atlas F sites were expensive, costing more than $15 million dollars each, even back in 1960. They were made with a special type of heavily reinforced concrete that was combined with an epoxy-based resin to make it stronger. The Atlas F itself was stored in an upright position for speedier fueling and launching in the event of an emergency. Of course, if a country launched a nuclear weapon, it would be pretty certain to be an emergency situation.
Atlas F elevator shaft
The Atlas Fs themselves were stored in silos the best part of 200 feet deep underground, with each missile sat on top of an elevator. If the order came in to put a missile on alert, it was filled with kerosene liquid fuel, RP-1. And were the missile to be launched, it would additionally be fueled with liquid oxygen, after which it would be raised to the surface by the elevator. We assume there was no muzak.
Rusty stairs on Level 3 of the base
Work on the Lewis, NY base – one of a dozen dotted around Plattsburgh Air Force Base – began in mid-1960, and the site was operational by the end of 1962. Workers had to excavate 12 holes in solid rock, each one measuring 174 feet (53 meters) deep and 54 feet (16 meters) wide. It was dangerous labor, too, with seven reported fatalities due to accidents and many other men suffering injuries. Moreover, ironically all the sweat and the lives lost resulted in bases that were barely used, for the Atlas F missiles were obsolete by 1965.
In a more recent twist, a 2005 report states that “Boquet 556-5” was being renovated – part of plans to restore the site to its condition in 1962 – and certainly one of the underground facilities in the vicinity has been transformed into a property.
8. Titan I Launch Base, Deer Trail, Colorado, USA
It's interesting to try and imagine what different equipment may have been used for.
One of the earliest strategic, intercontinental ballistic missiles, the Titan Is had a part to play in the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, when they were put on standby for launch as a deterrent. Six complexes were built in Colorado to house the deadly weapons, including this one north of Deer Trail.
A long, seemingly interminable tunnel leading from the antenna area to the main corridor
Constructed between the late 1950s and early to mid 60s, the Titan I missile silos were 160 feet (48.5 meters) deep and measured 40 feet (12 meters) across, with each one housing a single missile. As well as three silos, every complex contained an underground control center, powerhouse, radio antennas, various equipment and extensive tunnels – all covering up to 60 acres of land. Storing and launching nuclear weapons certainly took up a lot of space.
Like the Atlas Fs, the Titan Is were sent skyward using RP-1 (kerosene) and liquid oxygen, and fueling took place just before the missiles were elevated out of the silos ready to be launched from ground level.
Springs are everywhere throughout the tunnel, possibly serving as shock absorbers.
“Titan” was certainly an appropriate name for missiles that measured 98 feet (29.5 meters) long and carried nuclear warheads. It’s claimed they had a longer range and packed more of a punch in terms of payload than any missile before them. Even so, the Titan I missiles were only in service for a relatively short time and by 1965 had been phased out completely.
According to photographer Jeff McCrum, the launch tunnel contains rails that may have been used for fueling.
These days, the empty silos are damp and filled with pockets of water. Rust covers many of the metal surfaces and the air is cool no matter what the season. The dark tunnels and abandoned equipment make this a spooky place to explore, but a great location for photographers looking for interesting shots – as you can see from these photos.
7. R-12 Dvina Launch Base, Zeltini, Latvia
This bust of Lenin once stood in Aluksne’s central square but was moved to the missile base after independence.
The Zeltini missile base in Latvia is one of the only places in the country where you can still see a statue of Lenin. Not too surprising in a land where thousands of those who took up arms to resist Soviet rule following World War Two were killed or exiled to the notoriously harsh Gulag camps.
Long spooky-looking tunnels and corridors are a common feature, and part of the appeal, of abandoned missile bases.
The complex at Zeltini is home to underground bunkers, silos, launch areas and pretty much everything else you would expect of a Cold War missile base. Although now abandoned, it stands as an impressive relic of what Soviet military installations were like.
Part of an aboveground structure, with not much left now
Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev once famously remarked that the Soviets' missile capabilities were way ahead of anything the US had in its arsenal and that they could obliterate any European or American city. Fortunately, that claim was never put to the test.
Much of the exterior part of the abandoned base is overgrown with vegetation.
As well as bunkers and sundry equipment, the Zeltini base housed R-12 Dvina (SS-4 Sandal in NATO’s language) medium-range ballistic missiles, each of which was 72 feet (22 meters) long. Apparently, the missiles were originally kept in surface hangars, but these were later replaced with safer sounding underground silos. The nuclear warheads are said to have been stored separately – and one assumes very carefully – away from the launchers.
6. Dvina Launch Base, Kingisepp, Leningrad, Russia
A clear view to the bottom of a missile silo at Kingisepp
When it was built, the facility at Kingisepp is believed to have held the distinction of being the only base in the Leningrad area to house medium-range nuclear missiles. We imagine this strategic location must have made it particularly important to the Soviets.
A corridor within one of the silos. Once, perhaps, it would have been bustling with crew going about their work.
Two surface-launch facilities as well as an underground silo complex for Dvina missiles were constructed at Kingisepp.
This abandoned silo is filled with debris, rather than the water we have seen elsewhere.
Since their development in the late 1950s and early 60s, silos have remained the number one launch system for land-based missiles. The US did attempt to design an improved system during the subsequent two decades, but none was ever produced.
Chamber with a storage bed for an oxidizer tank
Another name for a missile silo is a launch facility, or LF. As well as being protected by blast doors, such facilities are typically in some way connected to missile launch control centers, if not via tunnels then by electrical wires. The underground passageways are part of the creepy attraction that abandoned missile complexes hold for modern-day explorers.
5. R-14 Launch Base, Saryozek, Kazakhstan
Exterior of the eastern missile silo site at Saryozek, surrounded by its stunning Kazakhstan landscape
The missile base at Saryozek (or Sary-Ozek) in Kazakhstan is of great historical interest, not only owing to its status as a Soviet installation, but also because it was the site of the first deliberate destruction of nuclear weapons under the terms of an agreement to eliminate a whole class of nuclear weapons with intermediate ranges. In 1988, the first four SS-12 missiles were destroyed here as part of the INF treaty signed by the US and the Soviets the previous year.
Looking down one of the disused silos, now looking a little like a well
Prior to its role in nuclear disarmament, Saryozek was a base both for missiles aimed at China and for the training of crew. When Kazakhstan eventually declared independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, it found itself sitting on one of the world’s biggest nuclear arsenals, with weapons stranded in bases like this one. Causing greatest alarm were some 1,400 nuclear warheads as well as 104 of the feared R-36M (SS-18) intercontinental ballistic missiles; but they, like all nuclear weapons in Kazakhstan, were out of the country by 1995.
Who would have guessed the destructive purposes this decrepit looking bunker once served?
If the decision to launch the R-14 (SS-5) missiles housed at the Saryozek site had ever been made, large parts of both China and India would have been in very real danger. We're betting billions of people would have slept a whole lot less easily if they'd known this was the case back then.
Underneath the dome of a silo
The R-14 (SS-5) missile silos at Saryozek are clustered pretty close together. From one perspective, this might not have been such a good idea, as it may have made them more vulnerable in case of attack. However, apparently there was a good reason for keeping the silos near one another: the fuel for the R-14s was dangerous and corrosive, hence the need to keep the handling of it to a minimum.
4. R-12 Dvina Launch Base, Plokstine, Lithuania
An eerie, dimly lit corridor
With Western spy satellites an ever-present threat, keeping a missile base hidden can’t have been an easy task, even when that base was in the middle of an isolated forest and underground. Yet the missile complex at Plokstine in Lithuania managed to stay off the radar (so to speak) for 18 years – including a dozen or more for which it was operational – and so remained a top Soviet military secret during that time.
The purpose some of the rooms must have served when the underground base was in operation is not always immediately obvious, but that in itself adds to their strange allure.
The base at Plokstine housed four R-12 (SS-4) missiles, each one with a payload many times more powerful than the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. Had the Americans known about the installation at the time, it would doubtless have caused them no end of consternation. Not to mention all the counties in Europe that fell within the missiles’ 1,200-mile (2,000-kilometer) range.
Looking down the deep missile silo gives you an idea of the scale of the missile that was housed there.
Another remarkable fact about the Plokstine base is that its four silos were dug out entirely by hand – a massive task for thousands of soldiers in the Red Army. It’s said that the men worked throughout the day and night in shifts to clear the underground tubes, one of whose shafts can still be seen today – an 89-foot (27-meter) deep, 16-foot (5-meter) wide shaft that must be enough to set stomachs churning.
The exterior of the secret base, which was not spotted by US reconnaissance missions during the years it was operational
The Lithuanian base was shut down in 1978, the same year in which it was finally discovered by American reconnaissance. These days, the silo that can be accessed astounds visitors due to its scale, while the underground tunnel network is said to be somewhat scary to explore. Still, at least solace can be found in the fact that the top-secret military base was never actually used to launch a missile.
3. R-12 Dvina Launch Base, Eleja, Lithuania
When the Soviets departed, locals living near the base stripped it of useful materials.
Plokstine was not the only Soviet military facility in Lithuania; in fact, there were five military bases holding some 20,000 troops established all across the country. And there was at least one other missile base at Eleja, which was in operation up until the late 1970s.
The base at Eleja had both above and below ground level facilities.
Like Plokstine, the Eleja complex housed four R-12 Dvina (SS-4) missiles, each of them around 72 feet (22 meters) long and packing a megaton-class nuclear warhead. The R-12 Dvina was the Soviets’ main missile threat to the powers of Western Europe and, infamously, its deployment to Cuba was what sparked the Cuban Missile Crisis.
There are lots of interesting details all over the abandoned complexes. Great for photographers.
The R-12 (SS-4) missiles were designed for use both in conjunction with surface launchers and underground silos of the type seen in Plokstine and Eleja. To prepare the missiles for launch took anywhere from 30 minutes to as much as four hours, depending on which stage of readiness they were to be found. In any case, a short enough duration to ensure that Armageddon would have been hard to forestall were its wheels set in motion.
An exterior view of the base
When the Soviets left their Eleja base, people from the surrounding area took the opportunity to help themselves to whatever materials had been left behind, which accounts for its stripped looking appearance these days. Interestingly, this is something that also occurred at the Plokstine base when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. Recycling at work.
2. Titan II Launch Sites, Arizona, USA
The ruins of one of Arizona’s 18 Titan II missile silos
Arizona is home to the only remaining Titan II launch site that is still in tact and serving a purpose – even if it isn’t operational. All the rest were abandoned or destroyed when they were deactivated, around 1982. Although some sources claim that the destruction of the sites was carried out in order to meet the terms of the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks held between the US and the USSR, others state that it was simply tied in with a weapon systems modernization program.
Whatever the case may be, the Titan Missile Museum in Sahuarita, AZ has been named a National Historic Landmark. Meanwhile, it’s left for urban explorers to probe other areas in the vicinity – like here, where, as photographer Scott Haefner explains, “The Launch Control Center dome and access portal were visible and poking out above ground level behind me.”
No smoking? The passage that connected the massive missile silo to the launch control center
The Titan II held the distinction of being the biggest operational land-based nuclear missile ever used by the United States. This deadly weapon took just 58 seconds to launch, and 30 minutes later could be 5,500 miles (8,850 kilometers) away delivering a yield of 9 megatons to an unfortunate target.
An escape hatch that crew could have used to crawl up through a tube to the surface
Like the other 53 Titan II launch sites located across the US, those in Arizona were "on alert" around the clock for over twenty years during the big freeze that was the Cold War.
Blast door in otherwise destroyed silo: This was intended to protect the crew from the missile in the event of an accident
Today, the missile facility at Sahuarita has been converted into a museum that contains a training missile in its silo. Tours are also conducted around the site, so that people can get some sense of what it was like inside these Cold War installations. Other visitors, however, seem interested in more off-limits areas…
1. Titan I Launch Base, Beale AFB, California, USA
Missile base air shaft that supplied the massive 150-foot (45.5-meter) wide power dome with air
Walking the now-quiet tunnels of the Titan I complex at Beale Air Force Base, urban explorers are patently aware that they are not the first people to investigate these deserted spaces. Beer cans litter the floor, and in some places visitors have left their mark with graffiti.
Access tunnel, where fueling of the missile would have occurred before it was launched.
When it was a functioning launch base, there were nine Titan Is housed at Beale AFB, in clusters of three missiles spread across three different complexes. During this time, the silos attracted protests from the residents of Chico, a nearby town. The protesters would visit the site to make prayers for peace, and founded a group that would lead to the formation of the so-called Chico Peace Endeavor. One of the more positive upshots of a military installation, we would think.
A point at which different tunnels intersect
As we’ve already learned, occasionally events take a turn for the worse at missile bases. In 1962, a blocked vent and valve at Beale caused a blast that destroyed a Titan I missile and severely damaged its silo. Then, just two weeks later, a fire at another silo – which apparently broke out for the same reason – killed a worker. Unsurprisingly, working around deadly weapons has its dangers.
Another junction of tunnels, their walls daubed with graffiti
One other point to consider about abandoned missile silos is the chemical residue left behind from toxic cleaning solutions and of course the kerosene-based RP-1 fuel, which has been known to contaminate the groundwater and soil at certain sites. Those exploring parts of some silos – like Beale’s – wear masks to protect them from noxious fumes. It seems not all the dangers have departed from the vacant missile bases.
Propellant terminal entrance looking like something out of a sci-fi movie
With their atmosphere of historical gravitas and haunting desolation, empty missile silos are certainly appealing places to explore. Some are truly isolated, set apart from the modern world, while others still lie within active military bases. And while some are open for guided visits, others can only be investigated covertly, with the threat of prosecution if one is discovered.
Atlas F missile silo in Lewis, NY with its roof removed, so that you have a clear view of the murky water accumulated at the bottom
Yet, no matter where they are, these abandoned installations remind us of a time when we came very close to being wiped from the face of the Earth. Moreover, they move us to wonder if we will survive future threats to the planet – be they of our own making or otherwise – as fortuitously as we seem to have done in the face of nuclear Armageddon.