Joint Chiefs Vice Chairman Phones ICBM Crews on New Year’s Eve

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  • By Cheryl Pellerin

In the hours before the clock struck midnight last night, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff was on the phone with two-person crews who were on alert in missile silos at the nation’s three intercontinental ballistic missile bases.

Air Force Gen. Paul J. Selva made it a point to call and thank missile crew commanders and deputies at their posts some 70 feet underground in the missile fields surrounding F.E. Warren Air Force Base near Cheyenne, Wyoming; at Minot Air Force Base, North Dakota; and Malmstrom Air Force Base in Great Falls, Montana.

I just want[ed] to say ‘Thank you’ to the crews,” the general told DoD News, because they'll be away from their families on New Year’s Eve.

“That's the most important part of this,” he added, “recognizing that we care about what they do because their work is so important to the security of the country, and it's important that we honor them.”

Abiding Respect

Selva has a long relationship with the nuclear force, first serving in Strategic Air Command as a lieutenant and a captain, and in 1989 as a company grade advisor to the SAC commander.

“I have an abiding respect for what those nuclear warriors go through,” the vice chairman said.

“It's very detailed training, it's very disciplined work,” he added. “It requires motivated, capable officers and enlisted professionals across the whole force, from security forces to facility managers to the transportation and maintenance teams who get them where they are, to the two officers who ultimately sit alert.”

Selva’s brother also was involved in the nuclear force, the general said, serving as a Minuteman III launch control officer at Grand Forks Air Force Base in northeastern North Dakota from 1977 to about 1984, when Grand Forks still had Minuteman III missiles.

Nuclear Triad

The ICBM force is one of the legs of the triad that's on alert 24 hours a day, seven days a week, Selva said, noting that the only other part of the nuclear triad that has that distinction is the submarine ballistic missile force.

“It's hard to make a phone call to a submarine [but],” he said, “I'd do it if I could.”

Earlier this year, shortly after Selva was confirmed as Joint Chiefs’ vice chairman, he visited sites representing the three legs of the nuclear triad.

“My objective in all three visits was specifically to look at how our crew members train and certify for the nuclear mission,” Selva said, “placing great emphasis on their career development and professional training that go into producing a ballistic missile crew commander, deputy crew commander, instructors, their opportunities for promotion, how they go through weapons school and those sorts of things.”

The First Two Legs

The first visit, in August, was to the ICBM ballistic missile fields of F.E. Warren Air Force Base, headquarters for the ballistic missile force and home of the 20th Air Force, and one of the larger and most geographically disbursed missile fields.

There, Selva said, “we got to see some of the challenges that come with managing a force that's literally spread out all over the countryside.”

In early September he visited Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri, and went through the same process with the crew of a B-2 Spirit stealth bomber, walking through how they certify and then go through an alert sequence.

“They showed me how they get out to the airplane and how they get into the airplane, start the engines [and] do all of their checklist procedures for dealing with nuclear weapons on the airplane,” the general said, calling it an “enlightening process of how we manage their training and professional development.”

He added, “[It’s a] very small force, all essentially located in one place, so we have to be very careful about how we manage their careers.”

Learning the Mission

His visit to the final leg of the nuclear triad was Bangor, Washington, where he toured the Trident Training Facility. There, officers and enlisted service members are taught to operate and maintain ballistic missile, cruise missile and nuclear-powered attack submarines, subsystems and equipment.

Selva toured the USS Alabama, an Ohio-class nuclear-powered fleet ballistic missile submarine, and on another ballistic missile submarine watched the crew prepare for certification.

At the Trident Training Facility sailors use simulators -- including a communications room, missile facilities, and safes for handling orders -- to learn the processes by which a crew manages nuclear materials, the general explained.

“We watched the entire process from start to finish, about a 45-minute process of how the crew trains, how the officers work together [and] how the sailors on the crew interact with the officers as they do their mission,” he said.

Start to Finish

“I got a really deep understanding of how that process works and said to the commanding officer of the facility at the time -- and I still believe it -- the Trident Training Facility is one of the best adult education processes I've ever seen,” Selva said.

It combines academic training with hands-on simulation and constructive training for the whole submarine, the general added.

“The commanding officer of the submarine has high confidence in his crew force,” Selva said, “because he actually gets to go through every detail of the process with them before they get on the submarine and take it out to their mission.”

Selva called watching that training one of the more interesting experiences of his career.

National Security Requirement

After the visits, the general, a firm believer that the triad is required for the nation’s security, said that what struck him most was the professionalism of the young men and women who do the work every day.

“They are all 100 percent committed to doing this right,” Selva said. “When they talk about the safety, security and effectiveness of our nuclear triad, they are very serious. So their professionalism wasn't a surprise.”

The general recalled a young captain who was in charge of training the crew force at F.E. Warren.

“He was a young missileer with a degree in political science, and a graduate of the Missile Weapons School -- one of the first. He stood up and talked about how proud he was of what he does but also of all the opportunities that exist in his career field,” Selva said.

Aspiring Leaders

Only five years ago large groups of young officers were told that being a missile launch officer was a dead-end and that they would have to do something else to advance in the Air Force because there wasn't room for all of them in the ballistic missile force, he said.

“That was actually how we managed the force,” Selva said.

Today, the Air Force has built a career pyramid that contains professional military education opportunities, and young officers aspire to be leaders in the ICBM career field for their entire Air Force careers, the general said.

Selva said he saw the same professionalism that the captain exhibited in all three legs of the triad.

“Young men and women who see a long-term career and opportunity in what they're doing and [who] understand how important it is. I think that is very significant,” the general said.