Staff Sgt. Isaiah Miller operates a lift in a missile tube used for training at Malmstrom Air Force Base in 2010. (Tribune file photo)
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The 341st Missile Wing at Malmstrom Air Force Base is preparing to be reevaluated after failing a Nuclear Surety Inspection in August.
Of the 13 areas inspected, the wing received 10 exceptional ratings and one satisfactory in addition to two unsatisfactory ratings tied to the same incident during the exercise, according to Col. Robert Stanley, the 341st Missile Wing commander.
The inspection occurs every two years for units that handle nuclear weapons. According to Air Force Global Strike Command, which oversees the 341st, the NSI is designed to evaluate safe, secure and effective unit nuclear mission capability.
The wing will redo the unsatisfactory portion of the exercise in 90 days, which will likely be sometime in November.
“The 341st Missile Wing is ready to prove our ability to provide combat-ready forces for safe, secure and effective nuclear deterrence,” Stanley said last week. “Team Malmstrom has worked around the clock, seven days a week to ensure every facet of what we do is ready for even more scrutiny. This is a tough job. But we understand the sheer magnitude of our mission. Our men and women are as tough as nails, and there’s nothing I like more than airmen who grin when they fight.”
In the meantime, the 341st Security Forces Group commander, Col. David Lynch was relieved of command in August for a loss of confidence, according to base officials.
After the failed inspection, Stanley wouldn’t say which part of the exercise had failed and Air Force officials say Lynch’s removal was not related to the exercise, though Lynch was relieved of command the week following news of the failure.
But, all of the bad news for Malmstrom in August won’t likely affect the long-term mission and operations on base.
“I think it’s a serious question within the Air Force community and within the nuclear community. My sense is that this is a pretty intense inspection. It’s good that the Air Force takes this very, very seriously,” said Steven Pifer of the Brookings Institution. “I’ve not seen things that suggest that because of the failure that the deterrent is weakening. It’s certainly not something you want to repeat, but the reverberations are somewhat limited.”
Pifer is the director of the Brookings Arms Control Initiative and a senior fellow with the Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence and the Center on the United States and Europe in the foreign policy program at Brookings.
A former ambassador to Ukraine, his foreign service career centered on Europe, the former Soviet Union and arms control. He also served on the National Security Council.
After President Barack Obama’s call for a one-third reduction beyond the New START nuclear reductions during a June speech in Berlin, many in Congress and other nuclear advocates pushed back, saying the cuts would dramatically impact national security.
No one in the White House or Department of Defense has advocated dismantling the nuclear triad, of which Malmstrom’s 150 intercontinental ballistic missiles make up the land-based leg. The other legs include submarine-launched ballistic missiles or those carried by bombers.
In testimony during a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee in April, Maj. Gen. Garrett Harencak, assistant chief of staff for strategic deterrence and nuclear integration, added, “the triad is one of those enduring ideas that, regardless of the fact that the world has changed many times since we first embarked on a triad, it has proven itself to be one of those ideas that the time has not come to get rid of.”
But all three missile bases, as well as Air Force Global Strike Command and U.S. Strategic Command are still figuring out how to meet the reductions required in the New START Treaty.
According to the treaty terms, the United States and Russia must reduce nuclear armaments to no more than 1,550 deployed warheads; 800 deployed and nondeployed intercontinental ballistic missile launchers, submarine-launched ballistic missile launchers and heavy bombers equipped for nuclear armaments; and to have reduced their deployed ICBMs, SLBMs and heavy bombers equipped for nuclear armaments to no more than 700.
According to the Defense Treaty-Inspection Readiness Program’s Treaty Information Center, the estimated U.S. ICBM force in 2010 was 450 launchers and 500 warheads.
By 2017, the United States could retain 420 total launchers, 400 deployed launchers and 400 warheads, according to estimates from the Congressional Research Service.
That means 30 more launch sites or silos will be closed between now and Feb. 4, 2018, meaning 10 from each missile base could be closed.
A spokeswoman for Global Strike said the baseline plan will retain up to 420 ICBMs across the force, but didn’t have additional details ready for release.
Pifer and James Quinlivan of RAND said the military largely operates on a daily basis as a dyad, and to shift to that nuclear arrangement would be reasonable.
Quinlivan is a senior operations research analyst at the RAND Corp., focusing on research onto introducing change and technology into large military and civilian organizations. He has served as vice president of RAND’s Army Research Division, and as director of the Aerospace and Strategic Technology Program and the Strategic Forces Program within RAND Project Air Force.
Pifer said he’d like to see the Air Force keep ICBMs in the mix and that while a dyad could work, the military doesn’t need to make that kind of change now.
“We can still make significant U.S. reductions in tandem with the Russians reducing and still keep a triad,” he said.
The U.S. ICBMs force is made up of the Minuteman II missile now and the Air Force has said it’s good until 2030 and is looking into extending the life of the weapons system as it’s likely cheaper than designing and building a new one.
He said the U.S. could still maintain the ICBM force and drop the arsenal to 1,000 warheads.
“We’ve basically made most of the investment now and they’re very cheap to operate, compared to bombers and submarines,” Pifer said.
He said the argument by congressmen from the nuclear states, including Montana, that reducing below the current 450 ICBMs would be a disaster is “just plain silly.”
The U.S. could still have a solid ICBM force with 300 missiles, he said, which is what one Congressman called for during the defense budget discussions in the House of Representatives this summer. His amendment failed.
“If we are going to reduce the force, it’s unrealistic for ICBM senators to say, ‘You can’t touch our ICBMs,’” Pifer said.
Montana’s Rep. Steve Daines helped pass legislation this summer to maintain the ICBM force at 450 for the next fiscal year, though Democratic Sens. Jon Tester and Max Baucus have asked that Department of Defense maintain 420, which is in line with the New START reduction requirements.
“Maintaining a strong nuclear defense is critical to our national security and the continued success of our “peace through strength” strategy. I am deeply concerned that the proposed reductions to our nuclear triad are both premature and could place our nation’s security at a disadvantage,” Daines, a Republican, said last week. “As we see nations like North Korea and Iran working to gain nuclear capabilities, it is clear that now is not the time to lower our defenses. Malmstrom and its mission certainly hold an important role in our state and the Great Falls community — but our nuclear mission is first and foremost about maintaining our nation’s security for all Americans.”
Tester and Baucus said the ICBM force is the cheapest portion of the nuclear triad, comments that Stanley has echoed.
Quinlivan said the advantage of the ICBM is the near instant availability if the need arises.
“That availability has always been one of the strong suits. Is that that important today? We’re not in a hair trigger situation today with the Russians,” Quilivan said. “There’s some stability to the dyad argument and a lot of missiles available come out of ICBM force. On a day to day basis, we have a dyad and on day to day basis the ICBM force is the biggest part of that.”
They said a big question in nuclear reductions comes down to the Russians’ willingness to agree to more reductions.
In 2010, Obama wanted to include reserve strategic and nonstrategic nuclear weapons and that the June speech would include a reduction in tactical nuclear weapons, none of which the Russians have budged on, Pifer said.
Pifer and Quinlivan said that part of the problem is the Russian modernization schedule is different from the U.S.
“The Russian argument is that because they perceive that they have some conventional inferiorities, that they have a need to rely on tactical weapons to balance that out to compete with China and other powers,” Pifer said.
He said he understands that stance, “but you really need to ask if they need as many tactical weapons as they have to carry out that doctrine.”
Quinlivan said the Russians traditionally have stronger ties to land-based missiles and potentially have some new missiles in the pipeline.
“They’ll have many of the same questions they’re going to have to answer programatically as we will,” Quinlivan said. “How many do you want to plan for? How many do you want to sustain?”
Pifer said the Russian philosophy is different in that the U.S. typically builds a missile then updates and modernizes but the Russians build one that lasts about 20 years and then scrap them in favor of something new.
It also reflects an economic calculation, Pifer said as the Air Force has been able to maintain the weapons systems like the ICBM and the B-52 bomber by upgrading versus building new.
Maintaining morale after the failed inspection was a top priority for Stanley and his group commanders.
Carl Rhodes is director of the Manpower, Personnel, and Training Program within RAND Project Air Force. The program examines questions concerning the required size and composition of AF workforces; the best ways to recruit, train, develop, pay, promote, and retain personnel; and the quality of life for Air Force members and employees.
He said that even when there’s no bad news surrounding the nuclear mission, it’s a tough job.
“The hard thing about this mission, you’re hoping that you never execute the mission,” he said. “You want to be prepared to execute the mission, but you never want to see something happen if you’re doing your job properly.”
He said that unlike airmen who work on aircraft, or pilots who fly them, in the ICBM field, “it’s very hard to quantify the affect you’re having on the world.”
Stanley has talked about that difficulty in past interviews and has said one of his priorities as commander is to ensure that Malmstrom airmen know their value.
“They are very interested in doing their mission properly, they’re really good professionals,” Rhodes said. “They’re at the whims of what’s happening in the bigger geopolitical level.”
The ICBM field is a small community and Rhodes said any changes in the numbers of ICBMs would affect and reduce the career field.