Lawmakers are pressing the Air Force to use National Guard helicopters as soon as possible to protect nuclear missile facilities that are potentially vulnerable to terrorist attacks.
Defense Department officials acknowledge that an aging fleet of nearly three dozen UH-1N Huey helicopters — a 911 force in the northern Great Plains —lacks the speed, range and payload capabilities to respond effectively if U.S. missile launchers were attacked.
The Air Force conceded this week that the Pentagon still does not know how or when it will come up with a strategy for procuring more than $1 billion worth of helicopters to replace the Hueys. Now senior members on the defense oversight panels say they are tired of waiting and want to see the National Guard called in promptly to solve the problem in the meantime.
“Due to the urgent security risk caused by your delayed decision, I strongly suggest you consider utilizing the National Guard and their HH-60M Blackhawk helicopters until the Air Force replaces the UH-1N,” wrote Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., a defense appropriator, in a Thursday letter to Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James that was obtained by CQ. “The security of our nation’s most powerful weapons must be a top priority for the Air Force, and due to their ability to fix the security gap, utilizing the National Guard must strongly be considered.”
Alabama Republican Mike D. Rogers, chairman of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Strategic Forces, also has called on the Air Force to use the National Guard Blackhawks as an interim solution to guard the intercontinental ballistic missiles, or ICBMs.
James had written Daines and eight other senators to tell them that the Air Force had recommended a proposed method of acquiring replacements for the Hueys — without saying what the proposal is. But, she added, the Defense secretary’s office had yet to approve the plan.
The nine senators had written James on March 18 urging the Air Force to decide how to replace the Hueys. The senators cited CQ’s disclosure in February that a U.S. military training exercise last year had revealed that the Hueys were not capable of adequately responding to an emergency alert.
The senators represent states that host ICBM fields plus the two senators from Connecticut, home of Sikorsky Aircraft Corp., maker of the Blackhawk.
A still broader set of members and defense contractors anxiously waits to see how the Air Force will procure new helicopters to protect the missile fields —whether through a competition that multiple companies could vie for or, alternatively, just an order for Blackhawks.
Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter, under questioning from Daines on the issue at an April 27 Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense hearing, said he would examine the possibility of using National Guard Blackhawks as an interim solution.
Carter said that for the safety of the ICBMs, the Hueys must be replaced “urgently.”
“I am monitoring that closely,” Carter said.
The Air Force recently told Rogers in a written response to a query that it is costing more than $8 million a year to pay for workarounds to help the aging Hueys perform their mission, which also includes guarding road convoys that transport nuclear warheads to and from maintenance appointments. The workarounds include setting up refueling stations alongside highways so the helicopters can keep flying.
Having taken these steps, the Air Force can protect nuclear materials on the highways. But it is unable to respond effectively to an emergency alert, officials have said.
To use National Guard Blackhawks would cost $20 million in one-time infrastructure changes and $40 million in annual operating expenses, the Air Force said.