Tester confident in ICBM site security

Great Falls Tribune

by Jenn Rowell

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., met Tuesday with Col. Ron Allen, commander at Malmstrom Air Force Base.

The meeting, Tester said afterward, focused on the security of intercontinental ballistic missile sites and replacing the UH-1N helicopter fleet used at Malmstrom and the other two missile bases, Minot in North Dakota and F.E. Warren in Wyoming.

Tester said he is pushing to get the aging Huey fleet replaced, but that the 341st Missile Wing and other missile wings are maintaining nuclear site security throughout the 450-site complex.

Though the Air Force, based on a request from U.S. Strategic Command, had attempted to use the Economy Act and purchase UH-60 Black Hawks through the Army’s current production line, the Air Force announced in May that it had ultimately decided to stick to the normal acquisition process.

Some members of the Montana congressional delegation and other lawmakers from missile base states have expressed frustration with that decision and have penned several letters to military officials asking for the Air Force to change course, justify its decision or use Black Hawks from the National Guard until the Hueys can be replaced.

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.

Tester said Tuesday that he supported the normal acquisition process, which is an open competition, to find a replacement airframe that may or may not end up being a Black Hawk.

He said the Air Force needed to “take time to make sure it’s done right” in finding a replacement that best suits the nuclear mission’s needs versus rushing the process.

Both Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., and Rep. Ryan Zinke, R-Mont., have encouraged the military to use Black Hawks from the Montana Army National Guard, or other outside helicopters, to augment the nuclear security mission until the Hueys can be replaced, but so far, the Department of Defense has rejected those requests.

Tester said he didn’t think pulling Guard helicopters for the nuclear mission was a good move and that those helicopters might be needed for fighting wildfires this summer.

Other lawmakers have been raising alarm that the Huey’s speed, payload and lift capabilities were compromising the security of the nuclear mission, going as far to say that the 450 missile sites operated by Malmstrom, Minot and F.E. Warren were unsecured, but Tester said he was “absolutely, unequivocally confident” that the sites are secure.

“If they weren’t secure, they’d make them secure,” Tester said of the nuclear airmen at all three missile bases. “The security of silos isn’t in question here.”