Lawmakers: New helicopters needed now for ICBM security

Great Falls Tribune

by Jenn Rowell

Montana senators joined others Wednesday in a letter urging the Department of Defense to replace the UH-1N helicopters used at intercontinental ballistic missile bases.

In the letter, the senators write that the Huey helicopters are insufficient for meeting current threats to national security and that they provided funding to replace the Hueys with UH-60 Black Hawks on the Army’s current production line to speed the replacement process.

But, the Air Force announced in May that it was pursuing a normal acquisition process, which could slow the replacement. Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James has told the Montana delegation that replacement helicopters would be at Malmstrom and other ICBM bases by 2019.

Sens. Jon Tester, a Democrat, and Steve Daines, a Republican, joined Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., as well as Sens. Jack Reed, D-R.I.; Chris Murphy, D-Conn.; Martin Heinrich, D-N.M.; John Hoeven, R-N.D.; Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D.; John Barrasso, R-Wyo.; and Deb Fischer, R-Neb., in sending the letter.

“After assessing the security situation facing our nation’s missile sites, the Combatant Commander concluded that he cannot rely on the current fleet of helicopters, deeming them insufficient for addressing the current threats to our national security,” the senators wrote to Secretary of Defense Ash Carter. “As the current UH-1N helicopters are operating on national security waivers — incapable of meeting speed, range, payload, armament, and survivability requirements — we must replace these aircraft as expeditiously as possible. At a time when our nation faces unprecedented threats, we cannot afford to prolong the security vulnerabilities of our ICBM missile fields for several more years.”

The senators asked Carter for a full justification for the change in plan.

The Air Force had attempted to accelerate the Huey replacement deliveries into fiscal year 2018, which starts Oct. 1, 2017, by using the Economy Act, based on a request from the U.S. Strategic Command commander. But in May, the Air Force said in a statement that it is “moving forward with a full and open competition for the replacement of the entire UH-1N fleet, which is consistent with the fiscal year 2017 President’s Budget Request.”

In April, a dozen members of the House of Representatives sent a letter to the House Armed Services Committee chair protesting the use of a sole-source contract and encouraging an open competition.

After the announcement, members of the Montana delegation asked the DOD to consider other options for augmenting missile security until the Hueys could be replaced. Daines asked that the Black Hawks from the Montana National Guard be sent to Malmstrom Air Force Base in the meantime, but so far, no decision has been made according to Air Force Global Strike Command and USSTRATCOM.

Adm. Cecil Haney, USSTRACOM commander, has requested additional forces to support the mission, but those requests have been denied, according to a letter Daines sent to Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

In his letter, Daines asked that a new request be approved to support the “165 ICBM launch facilities spanning 14,000 square miles in some of the most unforgiving terrain in the United States.”

The Malmstrom missile field is about 13,800 square miles and includes 150 launch facilities and 15 missile alert facilities. The two other missile bases, Minot in North Dakota and F.E. Warren in Wyoming, have smaller missile complexes, but the same number of launch facilities and missile alert facilities.

Hueys have been used for decades in supporting the ICBM mission, but were not originally intended to provide security, according to USSTRATCOM.

“Its role was to move personnel and equipment across the vast ICBM complex. It was later incorporated into the security mission because of its ability to rapidly deploy security forces. As the nature of the security posture and forces evolved, the UH-1N was found to lack adequate range, speed and payload to fully meet all of the department’s nuclear security requirements,” said Lt. Col. Martin O’Donnell, USSSTRATCOM spokesman. “Until the UH-1N is replaced, the Air Force has put in place other security measures to ensure the continued safety and security of nuclear weapons in the ICBM complex. USSTRATCOM has also requested, to the Joint Staff, additional security support until a UH-1N replacement is fully fielded. That request is with the Joint Staff for evaluation.”

Despite the Huey shortcomings, nuclear sites remain secure, according to the Air Force and USSTRATCOM.

“The denial of unauthorized access remains the Department of Defense’s nuclear weapon security standard,” O’Donnell said.

Each service, with direction from the Office of the Secretary of Defense and the Joint Staff, “institutes multilayered security measures to ensure only those with proper knowledge and training can gain access to nuclear weapons,” O’Donnell said.

DOD continually assesses potential threats and each service regularly conducts exercises to ensure security measures remain appropriate and effective, O’Donnell said.

Hueys have been used effectively for years in supporting the ICBM mission and providing security and have also been used for search and rescue. The 40th Helicopter Squadron at Malmstrom has more than 400 saves.

DOD continues to review and study nuclear security as threats have evolved, according to USSTRATCOM, and as a result of those reviews, more stringent protocols have been implemented.

In the Blumenthal letter, the senators wrote that they included $302.3 million to accelerate the Air Force’s replacement plan and those funds could be used to purchase eight Black Hawk helicopters on the Army’s contract. The Senate Appropriations Committee also included $75 million above the president’s budget to speed the replacement.

The senators also sent a letter to the National Defense Authorization Act Conference Committee members to ensure the funding in the Senate version of the bill remains in the final version of the legislation.