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A Report from the Alert Force

  • Published
  • By Maj. Gen. C. Donald Alston
  • 20th Air Force commander
The intercontinental ballistic missile force, a mysterious and quiet warrior domain to many, is extraordinarily active every day of the year ensuring the security of our missile fields and nation from America's heartland - and my hat's off to the men and women within 20th Air Force for this tremendous effort.

The "91st Missile Wing code change is complete," said 91st Missile Wing commander, Colonel SL Davis, in a recent e-mail to me.

His words signified that the changing out of launch codes, the most challenging of peacetime operations carried out annually, was now complete across the entire missile force. The challenge associated with this task is its scale - the weeks of deliberate planning, the hundreds of very specialized personnel simultaneously involved -- all done while not taking a moment off the required alert levels to maintain the nation's preeminent, stabilizing strategic deterrent.

Col Davis was reporting that the wing at Minot had done it, just as the other two ICBM wings, at Malmstrom AFB, Mont., and FE Warren AFB, Wyo., had accomplished a few months previously.

And, as with this year's code change, the ICBM force has performed in ways that should make the nation proud --particularly over the past year. All three missile wings passed every type of inspection during that time; particularly noteworthy is success during their Nuclear Surety Inspections (NSI). Now those of you who are familiar with military inspections, you know they can be tough as a wire brush. But there is nothing like the NSI anywhere else in the military. So success in these detailed evaluations is a fair way to assess how we perform on a daily basis in this most unforgiving enterprise.

In addition to accomplishing our primary mission of providing combat ready forces for nuclear deterrence and global strike operations, our Airmen are out there serving and saving the lives of their fellow citizens. Over a 96 hour period recently, the 341st Missile Wing at Malmstrom AFB, Mont., saved several lives as a result of UH-1N Huey search and rescue operations in mountainous terrain a couple of hundred miles from the base and all above 10,000 feet. They succeeded because of great airmanship and well-trained medics using the venerable Huey helicopter, a Vietnam era airframe that has long been inadequate to meet missile field security requirements, but remains well-maintained and is the best we have. In addition to the aircrew's primary mission of nuclear security, this search and rescue capability exists at all three ICBM wings, and these folks are good at what they do.

With record snowfall out west this past year, there was substantial flooding in both Montana and North Dakota in the spring and it continued into the summer. Though there were many challenges faced by the 341st Missile Wing at Malmstrom AFB, no challenges were greater than those faced by the airmen and families at Minot AFB, N.D. Back in April, unprecedented surface water levels began rising and encroaching on a number of missile launch facilities. Many sites were manned by maintenance and security personnel 24/7 for days and then weeks, just to ensure the portable pumps were keeping the water levels away from the launcher closure door and the Minuteman III ICBM beneath the door. The 110-ton door was built to withstand a near miss with a nuclear attack, but it's not so good protecting the missile from rising water levels. Thousands of sandbags and tons of crushed concrete and clay later, every site was protected and critical roads were reinforced. There were more heroes involved than you will ever know. The larger story of heroic efforts and extraordinary personal loss has to do with the flooding of parts of Minot, N.D. and surrounding communities. So many stories to tell, but one recurring theme was that of the airmen, spouses, sons and daughters of Minot AFB and their unrelenting efforts to support their community and fellow airmen and families in time of great and urgent need. And the great recovery continues.

In addition to these events, we recently hosted a Russian delegation visit here to discuss how we both secure our respective weapon system components. The 90th Missile Wing put on a fairly large scale demonstration with one of its nuclear convoys on the grounds of Camp Guernsey, Wyo. The success of the event was not just a measure of complete transparency and frank discussion; it was principally the result of the professional, high intensity performance of the Mighty Ninety team - security forces, maintenance personnel and helo crews. The Russians left further reinforced with how well we secure our weapons, and also with an appreciation for the absolute credibility of America's nuclear deterrent forces. We're serious, we're really good, we're ever ready, and the Russians know it.

The ICBM force is a relatively quiet lot, performing like so many other defenders of America in anonymity. Beyond the stories above, there are many others that ensure mission success each day, to include families who support a mom or dad that deploy to the missile fields for 150 to 170 days a year. I'm proud of the quality of Americans who are the only Americans charged with keeping nuclear deterrence stable with the ICBM alert force, keeping it fresh every day to underwrite the security of the homeland. They are an inspiring, small community of highly skilled warriors who understand precisely how consequential their work is to the nation and our allies.