Sen. Steve Daines is urging U.S. Air Force officials to consider Malmstrom Air Force Base as a future site for the B-21 bomber.
The Montana Republican made his suggestion Thursday to U.S. Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson during a Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense hearing on the Air Force budget.
He said Gen. David Goldfein spoke in September about the strategic advantages and budgetary efficiencies of having Intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) assets and long-range bombers both located at Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota.
“I find that argument very compelling and believe the same advantages could be attained at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Great Falls, Montana,” Daines said.
He said much of the B-21 bomber development has been shrouded in secrecy, “and for good reason.”
“When can Congress and public expect to see a strategic basing plan?” he asked.
Wilson said the plan is that bases with bombers now will have them in the future, adding the Air Force was looking at three bases for the “initial bed-downs” of the B-21s.
On May 2 the Air Force said “reasonable alternatives” for the new bomber would be Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri, Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota and Dyess Air Force Base in Texas.
The Air Force Times reported a final decision would be made next year, after compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act and other regulations. The B-21 is to replace B-1 and B-2 aircraft.
The B-21, being built by Northrup Grumman, is a “high-tech long-range bomber that will eventually replace the Air Force’s aging bomber fleet.”
The company says it will be capable of penetrating enemy air defenses and reaching targets anywhere in the world; something about 90 percent of the nation’s current bomber fleet is incapable of doing.
Wilson says the current plan is to have no less than 100 B-21s and rest of fleet, up to 175, will be B-52s.
“We are looking at our national defense strategy and nuclear posture review, and asking the Air Force how many aircraft and squadrons do we actually need: bombers, fighters and space assets across the board. …,” Wilson said during the hearing. She said there would be no less than 100 B-21s.
She and chief expect to see the initial draft in August and will send their plan to the Capitol Hill in March.
“It should give a clearer picture,” she said.
Wilson said the Air Force will review in the future if aircraft are needed and where they should be based.
Malmstrom is home to the 341st Missile Wing, which is one of three U.S. Air Force bases that operates the Minuteman III ICBM.
The wing is made up of a wing staff and five groups – the 341st Operations Group, 341st Maintenance Group, 341st Mission Support Group, 341st Security Forces Group and 341st Medical Group. The base has two tenant units, the 819th RED HORSE Squadron and the 40th Helicopter Squadron.
Great Falls officials have said the base makes up to as much as 40 percent of the city’s economy.
The existing paved runway at Malmstrom was declared inactive by the U.S. Air Force on Jan. 1 1997, as part of the Base Realignment And Closure (BRAC) process.
Great Falls Mayor Bob Kelly said he was not aware of Daines’ request, but said Montana’s congressional delegation was always looking for more opportunities for Malmstrom.
“We welcome any opportunity to host a flying mission,” he said.
Kelly said he did not know enough about the bombers to know if they would pose a significant threat to public safety.
“But I do know we feel safe with 150 ICBMs within a couple hours of Great Falls,” he said.
Reopening the runway will require a substantial investment by the federal government, Kelly said.
Daines also requested an update on the plan to replace Montana’s aging UH-1N helicopters.
“It’s like watching ‘Good Morning, Vietnam’ when you spend time watching those aircraft,” he said, making a reference to the 1987 film about the Vietnam War.
He asked Wilson if the Air Force is still on track for a 2021 delivery of a replacement helicopter in light of a pre-award protest made to the Government Accounting Office (GAO).
He said they provide security for nuclear missile fields in Montana and thought the replacement program may have stalled.
Wilson said the Air Force is “rapidly” supplying all of the information the GAO is asking for so the process is not delayed any further. She said the protest was lodged before the proposal was even in and the GAO review was expected to be done by May 23.
Wilson said there needs to be a way to get beyond the protests “so that we’re not delaying acquisition because we have to build for six months of protest for everyone.”
She said the Air Force was found to have conducted the procurements properly 97 percent of the time, but needs to add time to the schedule “because of these kinds of protest.”
At the meeting, Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., reportedly invited Wilson and Goldfein to visit Malmstrom and the Montana Air National Guard’s 120th Airlift Wing.
“We’ll show you some of the best people, some of the most committed people that we have — but I’m a little biased on that,” he said.
Daines noted the state has 3,400 active-duty airmen, 968 Air Guardsmen, and 600 civil servants.
“Montana is essential to some of the Air Force’s most critical missions,” he said.