BARKSDALE AIR FORCE BASE – As the Coronavirus pandemic continues to upend virtually every aspect of the American way of life, there is a question looming that every American citizen and ally should ask themselves.
Is the U.S. military fully capable of providing global strategic deterrence until a vaccine is available?
For Intercontinental Ballistic Missile teams in Montana, North Dakota, Wyoming, Colorado and Nebraska, who continue to uphold the most responsive leg of the nuclear triad, the answer to that question is a resounding “yes.”
It should come as no surprise that the nation’s nuclear forces were among the earliest and most aggressive in planning for the global pandemic. After all, preparing for the Nation’s worst day is their area of expertise.
Lt. Gen. Anthony Cotton, Air Force Global Strike Command deputy commander, a missileer himself, knew the command was prepared, and ready for a global outbreak.
“We saw what was happening and hoped that it wasn’t going to come our way, but we prepared and were prepared. This is what our Nation expects of us,” Cotton said. In hindsight, these efforts were undeniably crucial, and have since paid off.
With hundreds of dispersed and hardened facilities spanning the northern tier of the United States, the ICBM leg of the nuclear triad is the cornerstone of the American National Defense Strategy, and the mission must continue under all circumstances.
The 20th Air Force commander, who is directly responsible for the readiness of the nation’s ICBM force, expressed his confidence in the face of COVID-19.
“Make no mistake—we were ready before COVID-19 and we are ready now,” Maj. Gen. Fred Stoss said. “Whatever the future holds, we will be ready to provide responsive combat power for the nation with no change in readiness or lethality.”
The health and safety of service members, their families and the civilian workforce across the command remains a top priority for leaders like Stoss who understand just how crucial their people are to the lethality and readiness of the ICBM mission. Commanders are given great flexibility to respond to local conditions in order to meet the critical needs of their people.
The nuclear business is not afforded the luxury to choose which caveats or conditions they must operate through.
“We need to operate during all conditions, and that includes operating through the pandemic,” Stoss said. “We will ensure our Airmen are provided with what is needed to support extended alert tours for however long it is needed.”
For a mission that has operated on a 24/7/365 continuum for the last six decades without missing a beat, it is a message that America’s allies and adversaries alike should take seriously.
As for the men and women responsible for upholding one-third of the nuclear triad, Stoss emphasized their commitment to the mission has never been more vital. As the rest of the world finds its footing amidst the global pandemic, missile operators continue to provide a safe, secure and lethal force.
“Missileers understand the huge responsibility that comes with being a critical part of this mission and they are proud to be a part of the long-standing heritage of missileers that have continuously kept watch over our nation,” Stoss said.
Though missile operators typically stand the watch in teams of two crew members per launch control center for a period of 24-hours, COVID-19 mitigation measures have extended ICBM tours by upwards of two weeks, followed by extended periods of disciplined self-isolation prior to returning to the missile field, according to Capt. Nicholas Vaughn, a missileer at the 341st Operations Group, Malmstrom Air Force Base, Montana.
Disciplined self-isolation may seem daunting to most, but the men and women who stand duty in missile fields are accustomed to austere and isolated conditions. According to Vaughn, missileers are able to engage in some of the same recreational activities they enjoy at home. Improvements to the internet services at alert facilities helped enable crew members to maintain contact with their friends and family through social media while not pulling alert.
“It is critical to stay connected during these times, especially for those who are in the missile field for extended periods of time,” Stoss said. “I want to ensure that all missile field personnel, which includes operators, defenders, chefs and facility managers, understand how much they’re valued and appreciated for their professionalism, dedication to the mission and sacrifices. The same is absolutely true with our maintainers and other vital personnel.”
As operations adapted to the demands of manning during a pandemic, operators have had no trouble doing so. Vaughn said the manning constraints placed on the missile force as a result of COVID-19 are no more challenging than those they face on a day-to-day basis.
“Teams of bright people came together and figured out how to maintain a continuous on-alert ICBM force, how to get the necessary maintenance done, how to resupply our geographically-dispersed missile alert facilities, etc.,” Vaughn said.
According to Vaughn, “Morale is high. We understand the ‘why’ of all of it … We’re doing all of this: the extended tours, the wearing of masks to the office, physical distancing, closing base facilities, cancelling events, etc. If at the end of these modified operations, we can look back and say, ’See? No one got sick.’ That’s a job well done.”