Locals pitching Air Force to reopen runway for ICBM replacement program; defense bill authorizes funds for Montana military missions
Some local officials are working on a proposal to reopen the runway at Malmstrom Air Force Base, if only temporarily.
County Commissioner Joe Briggs is pitching the Air Force to reopen the runway temporarily for the delivery of materials related to the replacement of the intercontinental ballistic missile system.
The ICBM replacement program, the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent, is currently in the technology maturation and risk reduction phase and contracts were awarded to Boeing and Northrop Grumman. This phase is scheduled to last about 36 months and then the Air Force will select a single contractor for the engineering and development phase.
The GBSD program is an estimated $60 billion to $80 billion program.
During a meeting between local officials and Sen. Steve Daines on Monday, County Commissioner Jim Larson said Briggs was working on the idea since under current conditions, the materials would be flown to the Great Falls airport and then transported across town.
Reopening the Malmstrom runway for the project would “eliminate all of that traffic,” Larson said.
It would also increase chances for getting a new flying mission at the base, such as the B-21 bomber, Larson said.
A 2013 estimate from the 341st Civil Engineer Squadron at Malmstrom had the least expensive option for making the runway suitable for transient aircraft would be $25 million to $35 million. That option didn’t include hangar space but did include a new control tower, base operations section and airfield lighting.
At the time, it was estimated that another $73 million would add two 80,000 square foot hangars.
Base officials have said repeatedly in recent years that there is no plan to reactivate the runway, so more current estimates have not been available.
Daines told The Electric after the meeting that the proposal was an “interesting idea” that his office would continue exploring.
It’s still early in the GBSD development process, but some officials said the current phase is about six months ahead of scheduled and the language in the NDAA would allow the Air Force to accelerate this section of development since it will likely slow down again when the two defense contractors are competing for the final contract for production of the new missile system.
The runway has been a point of conflict for local developers hoping to annex a large chunk of property behind the east side Walmart for a residential subdivision and some officials have continued to express a desire to protect the runway for future use.
The NDAA does specifically mention that the new system should include 400 deployed missiles and 450 launch facilities. The bill also prohibits any reduction below 400 deployed missiles, which indicates that Congress has no plans to close or reduce the ICBM mission any time soon. Similar language has been included in the NDAA for at least the last several years.
Daines said he’s still pushing the Air Force to base the new B-21 bomber at Malmstrom though the Air Force has already announced that Ellsworth, Dyess and Whiteman AFBs, all current bomber bases, will receive the new aircraft.
With President Trump making announcements about the creation of a unified space command, Daines told The Electric that “is giving us another argument to open that runway back up.”
The defense authorization bill signed by Trump on Monday included language to establish space command, as a subordinate to U.S. Strategic Command, for carrying out joint space warfighting operations.
According to the NDAA language, for the first three years after space command is established the Air Force Space Command commander may serve as the new organizations commander, but after that one individual cannot lead both commands concurrently. The current AFSPC commander is Gen. John Raymond.
The Malmstrom runway was previously a backup landing site for NASA shuttles and in the late 1990s, the base was considered for the X-33, an unmanned space vehicle project that was abandoned.
During Daines’ Monday meeting, the Republican senator discussed provisions related to Malmstrom and the Montana Air National Guard that are included in the defense authorization bill that Trump signed Monday afternoon.
The NDAA includes:
- 2.6 percent pay raise for military members, the largest since 2010.
- $9 million to build an apron at the Great Falls International Airport for the Montana National Guard to store their C-130s.
- $288 million to replace the aging Vietnam-era “Huey” helicopters at Malmstrom Air Force Base.
- $154 million increase to improve ICBM infrastructure.
- $414.4 million for the GBSD program
The NDAA only authorizes funding for military programs, the funding has to be allocated by Congress in the defense appropriations bill.
The $9 million for an apron at the 120th Airlift Wing is to allow greater parking area for the C-130s to comply with Federal Aviation Administration regulations. It does not involve a building to house aircraft. The unit already converted an existing hangar to accommodate the larger planes and built a new hangar and other facilities for the airlift mission when they converted from fighters.
The Air Force was expected to award a contract for the Huey replacement in the third quarter of the current fiscal year, but a pre-award protect from Sikorsky delayed that process.
Air Force officials have said several times that the contract will be awarded by the end of this fiscal year. The federal fiscal year ends Sept. 30.
Defense News reported in July that if the contract isn’t awarded by the end of the year, the program might get pushed to Fiscal Year 2020 unless Congress appropriates more money.
“It would be a shame if we miss this window we have,” Daines told The Electric on Monday. “I don’t want to see a delay.”
He believes continuing to use the Hueys, which have been through depot and are continuously maintained, is putting airmen at risk in the field.
The money included in the NDAA would fund the program on the current timeline and assumes that a contract is awarded by the end of September. Another protest is also a possibility, which would further delay the project.
On Aug. 1, in remarks at the U.S. Strategic Command Deterrence Symposium, Gen. John Hyten said, “We’re going to get a new helicopter if I have to die trying or kill somebody to do it. We’re going to get a new helicopter. It is taking way too long. But what that wing and what Global Strike Command has done to make that weapon system viable and lethal, when it wasn’t just a few years ago, is remarkable.”
Hyten said that the Hueys are now armed and can refuel in the missile fields, increasing their capabilities.
“That Huey can do things that just a few years ago it couldn’t because we knew it was taking too long for us to get the helicopter. So, Gen. Robin Rand [commander of Air Force Global Strike Command] and the folks at Global Strike Command, and the folks at the 90th, and the 91st, and the 341st, they went to work and they turned that into a real capable, lethal weapon system.”
The NDAA also includes additional manning for the Air Force, adding more than 4,000 airmen to the active duty ranks this budget year, Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson said during a visit to F.E. Warren AFB last week.
“We lost 30,000 Airmen after sequestration, and we are gradually trying to grow back,” Wilson said.
During Daines’ Monday meeting with local officials in Great Falls, he said that the bill included language to upgrade C-130s, including those at the 120th Airlift Wing, to have firefighting capability.
One of the officials in the room asked if that meant Great Falls was getting Modular Airborne Fire Fighting System, or MAFFS, and Daines said yes.
But the MAFFS are owned by the U.S. Forest Service, which is not funded by the NDAA, nor does the bill include any language about upgrading C-130s for firefighting.
The USFS told The Electric this week that there were no plans to increase their inventory of MAFFS from the current eight.
Officials at the 120th Airlift Wing told The Electric that they were not getting MAFFS nor were their plans to upgrade their aircraft with any firefighting capability at this time.
The NDAA does authorize the transfer of seven former Coast Guard C-130s to the state of California for firefighting use. The planes were initially planned for transfer to the USFS, and language for that was included in the 2014 NDAA, but that transfer never really worked and the government scraped the plan in this year’s legislation.