In a bid to immediately bolster security at U.S. nuclear missile silos, senior lawmakers in both chambers are stepping up pressure on the Pentagon to divert military aircraft there from other locations.
The members are concerned that aging UH-1N Huey helicopters at the missile sites would not be able to respond to a terrorist attack there. The Pentagon, they say, needs to address the vulnerability now, while it waits several years to buy new aircraft to replace the Hueys.
In a letter Thursday, Sen. Steve Daines , R-Mont., a member of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense, urged Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to promptly approve an urgent request for forces from Adm. Cecil D. Haney, commander of U.S. Strategic Command, to address the problem.
“I am alarmed that the most potent weapons in the United States arsenal are insecure because Quick Reaction Force (QRF) teams entrusted with their protection do not have the equipment necessary to successfully execute the mission,” Daines wrote.
The letter comes one week after Daines huddled with Haney in a secure room in the Capitol to discuss the problem, an aide said.
Likewise, Alabama Republican Mike D. Rogers , chairman of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Strategic Forces, told CQ via email that it’s “absolutely imperative” that Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter promptly provide forces to address the security shortfall.
“I intend to use all the means at my disposal to make sure Sec. Carter and other DOD senior leaders give this urgent security requirement the attention it deserves,” Rogers said.
STRATCOM’s Red Flags
Lawmakers have been pressing the Pentagon for years to replace some three dozen Vietnam-era Hueys that security personnel fly at intercontinental ballistic missile, or ICBM, sites in the northern Great Plains.
CQ disclosed in February that Haney had raised the red flags higher last year when he wrote Pentagon leaders to call for new helicopters after secret exercises had dramatically shown the Hueys could no longer capably respond to a terrorist attack on any of the scores of widely dispersed launch silos.
The Pentagon announced last month it would hold a competition to find a replacement for the Hueys.
But Gen. Mark A. Welsh III, the Air Force chief, told reporters at the Defense Writers Group Wednesday that the competition would not even start producing new helicopters until 2020 at the earliest. He also said the bidding process would add one to two years to the time it would take if the Air Force just picked a contractor without competition, a move that experts say the service could legally make given the security imperative.
Daines, Rogers and others are worried about what happens in the meantime while the competition gets going.
The new full-court press by lawmakers to transfer aircraft promptly to the ICBM fields comes a day after the House adopted an amendment to the Defense spending bill (HR 5293 ) to add $80 million for the competition for Huey replacements.
With that vote in, now all four defense bills have approved funds or contained legislative provisions or report language to address the issue.
Blackhawks to Rescue?
Fully 165 ICBM launch facilities span 14,000 square miles, Daines noted in his letter to Dunford. Some 450 ICBMs are contained at those sites. Three Air Force bases are the hubs of the missile fields: Malmstrom in Montana, F.E. Warren in Wyoming and Minot in North Dakota.
Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work told a group of senators in a meeting last month that one option under consideration is to move HH-60 Blackhawks to Malmstrom or F.E. Warren and consolidate all the Hueys from both bases at whichever of the two facilities is deemed less vulnerable, an aide said. The situation at the fields around Minot is reportedly not considered as pressing.
Carter and others have referred to the situation as urgent. But while Welsh told reporters that new helicopters are needed, he did not seem as concerned as other officials about the security situation.
“We’ve never had a helicopter doing this mission that met the full requirement,” said Welsh. “It’s not like we woke up last week and said, ‘We’re not meeting the requirement for number of people on the helicopter.'”
Rogers said Welsh’s comments typify the service’s response to the problem, though he added that Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James, who had pushed for replacing the Hueys as rapidly as possible without completion, was an exception.
“General Welsh’s comments do not surprise me,” Rogers said via email when told of Welsh’s remarks. “The Air Force, in general, has not been at all concerned about replacing the UH-1Ns. Sec. James was a notable exception to the Air Force’s apathy. I am grateful for her efforts and wish her view had carried the day.”