Daily Montanan: Tester, Air Force secretary, tour Malmstrom, Air National Guard unit

by Keila Szpaller

GREAT FALLS — U.S. Sen. Jon Tester brought Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall and other military officials on a tour Wednesday of Malmstrom Air Force Base and the Montana National Guard’s 120th Airlift Wing.

The Montana senator met with service members, who he said had a chance to talk about the significant role Malmstrom plays in national security.

They also asked questions of the secretary, responsible for nearly 700,000 active duty, Guard, Reserve and civilian Airmen and Guardians and their families, according to Tester’s Office.

“I get a chance to talk with these people and grill these people on a regular basis, but today it was Montanans’ chance to visit with him one on one,” said Tester, a Democrat, at a press conference after the tour.

He said it’s rare for a secretary to stop at a Guard unit: “But this was an opportunity I felt that we could not pass up because we have an incredibly good Air Guard unit up here on the hill.”

Top medical people from the U.S. Air Force also were present to hear about rare cancer among missileers, Tester said. His office noted Lt. General Robert Miller, surgeon general with the U.S. Air Force and Space Force, was among the military officials hosted Wednesday.

Tester said hopes a report on the cancer will be released within the next year, although he hasn’t received a set timeline. He said a challenge is ensuring the cancer won’t be a concern.

“They’ve opened the aperture quite wide to make a determination on what the causes are,” Tester said.

At the press conference, Tester also talked about a massive Department of Defense project to upgrade its land-based nuclear missile system.

In a story about an environmental impact statement released last summer on the project, KRTV noted Malmstrom is responsible for 150 launch facilities and 15 missile alert facilities spread across 13,800 square miles over eight counties.

Tester said the upgrade, which includes renovating the launch facilities and building new missile alert facilities, is on schedule and funding levels are where they need to be.

In early May, Tester said he anticipates talking more with lead contractor Northrop Grumman about details such as housing and workforce. He said he would like as many Montanans as possible to be able to work on the project in the Treasure State.

Secretary Kendall directs the Department of the Air Force’s annual budget of more than $173 billion, according to Tester’s office. Tester, chairperson of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense, is responsible for crafting the Senate Defense Appropriations bill.

At the press conference, he said President Joe Biden released his budget roughly three weeks ago, and Tester is still evaluating whether it has enough money for programs such as the military’s spy detection capabilities.

“We have to do some more due diligence to make sure it’s adequate,” Tester said.

Earlier this year, a Chinese spy balloon floated across Montana. Tester was among the senators who questioned Department of Defense officials about why the balloon wasn’t detected sooner and the information it had gleaned.

The military shot down the balloon off the coast of South Carolina.

Wednesday, Tester said he learned little in a classified session about the balloon that focused on Malmstrom. However, he said he anticipates he will learn more in a full briefing on the information the balloon collected and its journey across the U.S.

In response to a question about whether the U.S. military is prepared to address conflicts, such as Russia’s war in Ukraine and the threat of military aggression against Taiwan by China, Tester said the world is uncertain.

However, he said the U.S. military is strong, and he believes it’s important to invest in deterrents and show adversaries they don’t want to test the U.S. He toured a missile control facility as part of his agenda Wednesday.

“I can tell you we have an incredibly, incredibly good military, and that I’m very, very confident that it can meet the challenges in today’s world,” Tester said.

On the tour, he said the secretary was able to see firsthand how Montana puts its portion of the military budget to work and “show off the opportunities that Montana has from a national security standpoint.”

“He (Kendall) gets to understand that when we’re putting the budget together, that things like (Malmstrom and the Air National Guard in Great Falls) are important pieces,” Tester said.

He also said a meeting with soldiers “makes you proud as an American.”

In August, Malmstrom received the first of four MH-139 Grey Wolf test helicopters from Boeing, according to NBC. At the press conference, Tester said he anticipates another one will come in November or December, training is underway, and he’d like to see more of them in the sky.

“It’s an impressive aircraft,” Tester said.

Tester is Montana’s only statewide elected Democrat, and he has announced he’s running for another term in 2024. This week in Helena, state senators advanced  a bill to eliminate party primaries in 2024, legislation aimed at his bid for re-election.

Wednesday, Tester said voters would have a clear choice at the ballot box, and in the meantime, he was focused on other work, such as his trip to Great Falls.

Tester is a farmer, and he also said the late spring may make for a good crop this year.

According to Tester’s office, other officials on the tour were the following:

  • Thomas A. Bussiere: Commander, Air Force Global Strike Command, Air Forces Strategic – Air, U.S. Strategic Command
  • Major General Duke Pirak: Deputy Director, Air National Guard
  • Major General John “Pete” Hronek, Adjutant General for the State of Montana, Commander of the Montana National Guard

Tester, Air Force secretary, tour Malmstrom, Air National Guard unit – Daily Montanan