If you had told me six years ago when I was studying mechanical engineering that I would one day accompany an Air Force brigadier general to a U.S. strategic bomber and missile base, I would have thought you were completely insane. But back in February 2017, that is exactly what I did when I traveled to Minot Air Force Base (AFB) in North Dakota with five other National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) employees.
Minot AFB plays a unique role in the U.S. nuclear deterrence mission, as it is the only military base that supports two legs of the nuclear triad: the Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) under the 91st Missile Wing and the nuclear-capable Boeing B-52H Stratofortress bomber aircraft under the 5th Bomb Wing. Brig Gen Michael Lutton, the current principal associate deputy administrator for military applications at NNSA, accompanied us to Minot AFB. In this position, he oversees stockpile maintenance, warhead life extension programs, and serves as a liaison between the Department of Energy and Department of Defense. Prior to this assignment, he served as the commander of the 91st Missile Wing at Minot AFB and was more than qualified to introduce us to the base and its operations.
To truly understand the challenges in maintaining the nuclear deterrent at Minot, the general scheduled the trip at the most optimal time: the dead of winter. Luckily for us, the average temperature was a mild 30 degrees Fahrenheit. But, for the dedicated men and women at Minot AFB, winter ice and snow can impede daily maintenance schedules by limiting access to silos that are up to tens of miles away from base.
Although the weather can present significant difficulties, the base faces other challenges in operating and maintaining aging delivery platforms such as the fifty-year old, Boeing B-52H Stratofortress strategic bomber and the Minuteman III ICBM. Although dated, the B-52 is one of Boeing’s greatest engineering achievements, as is testament by the fact that the Air Force is planning for the B-52 to be operational until the 2050s. Our tour included a visit to a B-52H maintenance hangar, where we crawled up into a B-52 flight deck, participated in a simulated take-off and landing, and went through a simulated conventional bombing run.
The 91st Missile Wing conducts its on-alert deterrence mission with the ICBM year-round, meaning that there are always officers on-alert to carry out a potential nuclear order from the President of the United States. Unlike the 5th Bomb Wing, none of the Minuteman III’s have fortunately seen direct combat. During the 91st Missile Wing tour, we visited a training launch facility and went to an underground launch control facility. The Air Force purposefully separates the launch control facility from individual launch facilities for system redundancy and robustness. Although I did not get to go near an on-alert missile silo, I still observed the antiquated equipment and aging infrastructure that the Minuteman III relies on.
As the trip drew to a close, I gained even more respect and humility for the men and women serving at Minot AFB. Unfortunately, I have often witnessed a technical disconnect between the policymakers and those maintaining the nuclear deterrent in the field . But it became apparent to me and the other NNSA travelers that interacting with senior military leadership, such as Brig Gen Lutton, and visiting the maintainers, operators, and trainers responsible for two legs of the nuclear deterrent creates a vitally important relationship; a relationship that can close that technical gap and ensure future civilian leaders are able to make informed decisions.