Senators urge retention of missiles

The Great Falls Tribune

by Peter Johnson

Democratic Montana Sens. Max Baucus and Jon Tester have teamed up with a bipartisan group of U.S. senators in urging Defense Secretary Robert Gates not to trim the number of land¬based intercontinental ballistic missiles.

Malmstrom Air Force Base in Great Falls operates, maintains and guards 150 ICBMs. The long¬range nuclear missiles are housed in silos throughout cen¬tral Montana.

In a letter this week to Gates, Baucus and Tester — along with senators from other states that house, maintain or control the nation’s land-based missile force — asked the Pentagon not to make any further cuts to the number of ICBMs.

The senators sought to send a clear message to the military as it considers possible changes to its force structure.

President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev are negotiating a pos¬sible reduction in the number of nuclear warheads and delivery vehicles each country can main¬tain, while the U.S. Defense Department is conducting inter¬nal reviews of the right nuclear mix for the nation, called the Nuclear Posture Review and Quadrennial Defense Review.

The missile-state senators said they “are pleased to see this fur¬ther reduction in the nuclear arsenal” considered, but are con¬cerned that the number of land¬based U.S. missiles should not be trimmed any further. A squadron of 50 ICBMs was deactivated and removed from Malmstrom in recent years.

“We would strongly oppose a reduction below the current force structure of 450 missiles, divided into three wings (Montana, Wyoming and North Dakota) of 150 missiles each,” the senators wrote. “We believe this structure represents the optimal number of missiles and the optimal organi¬zation.”

Baucus and Tester also said maintaining the nation’s current land-based missile force is a rela¬tively inexpensive way to strengthen national security. Any further cuts would create prob¬lems in recruiting and retaining highly skilled missile operators and maintainers, they added.

“We are certain the ICBM force as currently constituted provides an extraordinary benefit to our national security while delivering high value to the taxpayer,” the senators wrote.

In addition to Malmstrom, Air Force bases in Wyoming and North Dakota each maintain 150 ICBMs. Hill Air Force Base in Utah serves as a missile mainte¬nance center. Effective Dec. 1, Louisiana’s Barksdale Air Force Base will serve as command cen¬ter for all of the Air Force’s nuclear operations, including ICBMs and bomber aircraft that carry nuclear bombs.