Missoulian: Malmstorm AFB getting helicopter upgrade for ICBM security

by Rob Chaney

A new class of helicopters will replace decades-old choppers for missile security at Malmstrom Air Force Base, according to Montana’s congressional delegation.

The first of seven Boeing MH-139 Gray Wolf helicopters is scheduled to arrive in Great Falls on March 9. Additional new helicopters are coming later, according to Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana.

 “I’ve fought for years to replace Malmstrom’s Vietnam-era fleet of helicopters with new MH-139 Grey Wolves that are more reliable, safe, and efficient,” Tester said on Wednesday. “I’m proud to have worked with the Air Force to deliver these aircraft so that our airmen and women have the certainty they need to do their jobs and protect our country.”

The MH-139 flies 50% faster, 50% farther and can carry 5,000 more pounds of payload than the UH-1N Hueys, according to Boeing. The company states the new helicopter is “designed to protect intercontinental ballistic missiles and transport U.S. government officials and security forces.” It’s based on a commercial AW139 helicopter design.

Malmstrom spokesman John Turner said on Wednesday that Malmstrom flight crews would be the first in the Air Force’s intercontinental ballistic missile fields to train on and deploy the new aircraft. Additional MH-139s will then be delivered to Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota and F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming.

Those three bases each oversee complexes of ICBM silos. Montana has 150 silos and 15 missile alert facilities scattered across about 13,800 square miles between the Rocky Mountain Front and Grass Range. They are currently loaded with Minuteman III nuclear ICBMs. The Air Force plans to replace those with new Sentinel ICBMs over the next decade.

Boeing’s Gray Wolf helicopters are different from the Sikorsky UH-60 Blackhawk helicopters flown by the Montana Air National Guard and Army units in the state. At Malmstrom, the Air Force will use them to escort missile transport convoys and to deliver security forces to missile silos.

The use of helicopters was a sore spot at public meetings on the Sentinel upgrade plans in Great Falls and Lewistown. Several landowners complained that the Air Force’s flight safety requirements would block opportunities to build wind turbines.

Tester said he asked the U.S. Air Force in 2016 to upgrade Malmstrom’s fleet of UH-1N Huey helicopters. Sen. Steve Daines, R-Montana, joined the push four years later.

“Montana has the best airmen and facilities in the country and the Grey Wolf will be right at home at Malmstrom,” Daines said on Wednesday. “I was proud to start advocating for the replacement of the Vietnam-era Huey’s back in 2020 and am grateful to see these efforts finally come to fruition.”