MINOT AIR FORCE BASE The 5th Bomb Wing and the 91st Missile Wing at Minot Air Force Base are making preparations for Global Strike Command, the new nuclear command. The Air Force announced in October its plans for the new command to specifically manage nuclear assets.
Col. Joel Westa, commander of the 5th Bomb Wing, said the centerpiece of the Air Force's plans to rebuild its nuclear enterprise and set up the new nuclear command is at Minot AFB. It is the only base with both nuclear mission bombers and missiles.
The 5th Bomb Wing has B-52 bombers and the 91st Missile Wing has its fleet of 150 Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles.
Eloise Ogden/MDN --
Some of the security force members with the 91st Missile Wing at Minot Air Force Base wait for the visit Dec. 1 of Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz near Uniform One, a simulated launch facility on base.
Eloise Ogden/MDN --
Members of the 54th Helicopter Flight stand beside one of their helicopters during the visit Dec. 1 of Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz.
Eloise Ogden/MDN --
Members of the 5th Bomb Wing at Minot Air Force Base wait near a B-52 bomber Dec. 1 before Secretary of Defense Robert Gates arrives for a tour of the plane. Minot AFB is the only base with two nuclear units – the 5th Bomb Wing and the 91st Missile Wing, and are making preparations for the new nuclear command – Global Strike Command.
"The idea is to rebuild the Air Force's nuclear enterprise. The centerpiece of that enterprise happens to be right here," Westa said, referring to Minot's two nuclear units.
Westa and Col. Chris Ayres, commander of the 91st Missile Wing, talked about the new command to members of the Minot Area Chamber of Commerce's Military Affairs Committee at the group's Dec. 5 meeting at the base.
Earlier that week, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz, along with Gov. John Hoeven, North Dakota's congressional delegation, and N.D. adjutant general Maj. Gen. David Sprynczynatyk visited the base.
Gates brought the message to Minot AFB airmen that based on everything he has "seen, heard and learned in past months, I strongly believe that the Air Force is now moving in the right direction to reclaim the standards of excellence for which it was known throughout the Cold War." He also told the airmen gathered in a hangar to hear his talk, "Yours is the most sensitive mission in the entire United States military. I am confident it is in good hands."
New major command
The new Global Strike Command is one of many changes the Air Force has made to correct deficiencies affecting the service's nuclear weapons arsenal, including an August 2007 incident when a B-52 bomber from Barksdale AFB, La., was mistakenly loaded with nuclear weapons at Minot AFB and flown to Barksdale.
The foundation of the Nuclear Enterprise Roadmap that was put together is about 100 recommendations from various investigators and a blue-ribbon panel. Those recommendations were grouped into a composite set of major actions.
This, Westa said, has resulted in "about $85 million this year and with the promise of about $270 million more for the Air Force with regard to this new nuclear roadmap for next year."
"Probably the biggest thing that's going to happen this next year with regard to the entire Air Force is the new Global Strike Command which will be a new major command." Westa said.
He said the new command will be dedicated to the nuclear and strategic deterrence mission.
A location for the new command's permanent headquarters has not been picked yet, Westa said. He said North Dakota's congressional delegation Senators Kent Conrad and Byron Dorgan and Rep. Earl Pomeroy is urging having it at the Minot base.
"Minot is the perfect location it's the only base with bombers and missiles," Dorgan said in a later interview.
Westa said others including Louisiana and Nebraska congressional delegations, are campaigning for the basing in their respective states.
The permanent home for the command is expected to be named in the next year, but a temporary location is expected to be named in the next month or so.
The new command is scheduled to begin its initial operational capability by September 2009 or near that time, Westa said.
Led by 3-star general
The new nuclear command will be led by a three-star general who will oversee all nuclear assets under one chain of command, Westa said.
"Eighth Air Force (nuclear-capable B-52s) will be part of it as well as 20th Air Force (intercontinental ballistic missiles). Eighth Air Force will bring in all the nuclear-capable B-52s to include our new B-52 squadron here at Minot," Westa said.
Westa said the new command does not include B-1 bombers because they're not nuclear capable, nor ISR (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) or C2 aircraft, which will remain under Air Combat Command.
New B-52 squadron
The official announcement was recently made that Minot AFB is the preferred location for a second operational squadron of B-52s, also part of the plan. The location is pending the outcome of an environmental impact analysis. "It's going to be an exciting year with regard to the new squadron we're already seeing some new faces on the base," Westa said.
"The plan is to man the 5th Maintenance Group to the 100 percent point," he said. Currently, the maintenance group is at 88 or 5 percent down.
He said people will flow in to fill that to 100 percent "while they build the capability of that new squadron and in about a year from now they'll stand up the new squadron."
"Sometime this next year the aircraft will start flowing in," Westa said.
"We've got another 11 aircraft (that) will be coming in here," he said. "We'll have a total of 24 or so here on the installation, so it should be pretty exciting and you'll see a lot more aircraft here."
Currently, there is one operational B-52 squadron at Minot AFB the 23rd Bomb Squadron and two operational B-52 squadrons the 20th and the 96th bomb squadrons at Barksdale. Adding the second operational squadron at Minot AFB makes four total, according to Air Combat Command information.
Westa said the interesting thing is the 5th Bomb Wing will still have dual missions "the conventional mission that I'm required to maintain, as well as the nuclear mission I'm required to maintain."
He said the new plan does not degrade conventional B-52 support to theater commanders.
"When we fall into our budget our one-year eligibility budget we'll concentrate on nukes and the rest of the time we'll still be required to maintain our conventional capability and be sourced by other combat commanders to support anything going on," Westa said.
"We don't lose anything here, we just get more," Westa emphasized.
Directorate for oversight
The roadmap also establishes a new directorate in the Air Force Headquarters staff office dedicated solely to nuclear enterprise issues for oversight, Westa said.
A Headquarters Air Force-level nuclear oversight board chaired by the Secretary of the Air Force and the Chief of Staff of the Air Force also is being established.
Westa said nuclear inspections will be enhanced, something which both Westa and Ayres said they are pleased is taking place.
"They're talking about 900 folks in the majcom (major command) that's quite a footprint when you get down to it," Westa said. He said probably 450 of them will be civilians and the rest military members.
"As I said, we are taking a look at where it's going to be (location of new command headquarters). None of this is determined right now location, size, they're all ballpark figures. There's a lot of planning that has to go on but that's where we sit right now," Westa said.
Change will be unnoticeable
"Really the important thing is day-to-day, you won't see a blink out there," said Col. Chris Ayres, commander of the 91st Missile Wing, regarding the new nuclear command for the missile wing.
"Operations crews, maintenance folks and security folks will come in one day, they'll pop on one patch, stick on another and they'll still go out to the missile complex, still go out to the flightline and do their jobs as always," Ayres said.
The missile wing is in charge of the 150 Minuteman III ICBMs located in the missile field which covers northwest and north-central North Dakota.
Ayres said the planning and other discussions about the new nuclear command are continuing to determine what else is needed. He said money is an important part of the new command and that money has been inserted for new helicopters and parts for aging ICBMs.
Locally, he said the missile wing's mission requires heavy use of roads around the City of Minot and in area townships. He said the missile wing's big trucks and its security vehicles travel on many gravel roads in the missile field.
"We beat up those roads quite a bit so when we had our summer issue of having a truck in the ditch, a lot of it was how stable are those roads because after a certain while they get beat down," Ayres said. "There's a program called Defense Access Roads and we understand a lot more money will be pumped into that as well to rebolster those roads."
He said money has also been plugged in to improve communications capabilites and they're working on getting more noncommissioned officers in security forces.
"We've had a lot more NCOs come in to security forces, more are coming and that's a needed entity," he said. He said NCOs, who are higher in rank than the airmen ranks, used to do those jobs but now airmen are. "We need to put NCOs back out in the field to run those things," he said.
Also in new command
Lt. Col. Tad Schauer, commander of the North Dakota Air National Guard's new 219th Security Forces Squadron at Minot AFB, said that squadron will also become part of Global Strike Command. "We'll be part of the team and continue the effort," he said.
The N.D. Air National Guard unit has achieved 50 percent manning its squadron, Schauer said. "We have 70 of our 140 personnel hired that's not trained, that's hired," he said. Forty of them are full-time members.
The unit officially activated in October. It is the first of its kind in the United States the first squadron in the Air National Guard whose mission is to support missile security for the 91st Missile Wing, working along with members of the 91st Security Forces Group.
Base, community support
Both Ayres and Westa said what is taking place at Minot AFB is teamwork and the support of the local area.
Since he arrived at the Minot base in May when he took over as missile wing commander, Ayres said, "I've just been incredibly impressed by the teamwork from everyone around the challenges, the low points and the high points Team Minot is certainly Team Minot."
Westa, who has been commander of the bomb wing for more than a year, said to the Military Affairs Committee members, "It surely should be recognized by everybody the reason that these things are happening here at Minot is because of your support and because of your longstanding steadfast support of our mission here over how many years? Sixty years or so."
"This is an incredibly important mission," Westa said, of the nuclear mission. "One that's been overlooked quite a bit as you read through all of the documents and all of the reports.
"It's a mission that kind of lost its luster and it shouldn't have, and we're regaining that now and it's pretty exciting exciting for this installation because as you see a lot of great things are happening growth, renewed emphasis, the tremendous support of the congressional delegation...," he said, along with some at the highest levels of the Air Force who have "really energized movement here so things are going to happen here very quickly to include everything that we've wanted new dorms, its infrastructure."
"It's not just the operational mission that's going to be improved here, it's the quality of life across the board here, which is pretty exciting," Westa said.