In pursuit of nuclear deterrence, the United States has occasionally crossed over the line into schemes seemingly more appropriate to a James Bond movie than the defense budget. But few were as crazy as Project Iceworm.

Throughout the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union were locked in steady competition not only for the most capable and powerful nuclear weapons but for novel approaches to deliver them. Both world powers were aware that any nuclear attack would likely begin with strikes against the opposing nation’s nuclear arsenals. This aimed at limiting the capacity to respond in kind. As such, massive efforts were undertaken to make huge nuclear weapons mobile, hidden, or otherwise insulated from attack.

While the Soviet Union invested in armored trains that could transport their massive ICBMs around Siberia and Frankenstein-like helicopter contraptions capable of delivering huge nuclear payloads to distant launch sites, it was not alone in its nuclear endeavors that verged on Bond-villainy. The United States, similarly motivated by fear of nuclear annihilation, also sought increasingly novel approaches to nuclear war, sometimes even on foreign soil.

Assembly of a Minuteman missile at Air Force Plant 77, circa-1960. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Nuclear Ulterior Motives

While the Russian military has been working exhaustively in recent years to secure and fortify large swaths of the Arctic Circle, the concept of the frigid north as a theater of battle is certainly nothing new. In many cases, the shortest distance between American and Russian weapons systems and targets is — over the Arctic Circle. As such, jockeying for position in the Arctic seemed like a strategic inevitability.

It was with that concept in mind that the United States agreed with the Danish government in 1960 to begin construction of what would be a large military facility built under the ice of Northern Greenland. According to the Pentagon, this program, which would lead to the construction of “Camp Century,” had a number of important goals: To test various construction methods in Arctic environments; to assess the use of a semi-mobile nuclear reactor for power; and to support ongoing scientific experiments in the region. Of course, in true Cold War fashion, these logical seeming goals were more about cover than they were about progress.

The real intent behind this initiative was to establish a massive series of under-ice tunnels capable of supporting the storage, transportation, and launch of especially designed nuclear ballistic missiles. It was dubbed Project Iceworm. By leveraging tunnels in the ice for this purpose, the United States could launch a bevy of nuclear weapons at the Soviet, while moving missiles frequently to make it nearly impossible for the Soviets to defend against, or even attack, the missile placements.

Camp Century (U.S. Army photo)

Camp Century — An Installation and a Cover Story

Located less than 1,000 miles from the North Pole, the ambient temperature in the area that would become Camp Century averaged at 10 degrees (F) below zero. They frequently reached as low as minus 70. Average snowfall accumulation in the area at the time was four feet per year, with wind gusts raging at 70 miles per hour. Building a military installation on the surface of the Northern Greenland ice sheet, then, was next to impossible.

Starting in 1959, the U.S. Army Engineer Corps had begun excavating two miles worth of the tunnels beneath North Greenland’s ice sheet. They used a method referred to as “cut and cover.” This method leveraged massive, Swiss-built, rotary tilling machines that would dig large trenches in the snow and ice. Once the trenches were dug, an arched steel roof was put in place over the new trench, which was then reburied.