On Alert

Oct. 1, 1988

“The SAC alert crews may be the ‘tip of the spear,’ but there is ten feet of spear behind it,” said 2d Lt. Terry Hesterman, a missileer with the 564th Strategic Missile Squadron at Malmstrom AFB, Mont. Lieutenant Hesterman was referring to the support force—maintenance and security people, cooks, weather forecasters, and many others—who keep the aircraft and missile alert crews operational and ready to carry out their EWO (Emergency War Order) tasking should the grim necessity ever come. He also meant the families of the alert crews, whose understand­ing and support is often forgotten.

This month, Strategic Air Com­mand begins its thirty-first year of alert. Gen. John T. Chain, Jr., SAC’s Commander in Chief, has declared 1988 the “Year of the Alert Force.” For a firsthand picture of life on alert, AIR FORCE Magazine visited the 341st Strategic Missile Wing at Malmstrom and the 410th Bom­bardment Wing at K. I. Sawyer AFB, Mich., both typical SAC wings.

An Awesome Responsibility

“Nobody wants this much re­sponsibility,” said 1st Lt. Scott Patnode, a KC-135 aircraft commander at K. I. Sawyer. “But somebody has to do it. We hope we never have to do our jobs.” Added 2d Lt. Kate McGraw, a deputy Minuteman II launch officer with the 490th SMS at Malmstrom, “The fact you might have to actually launch nuclear mis­siles is always in the back of your mind. But putting it into perspec­tive, I’d rather be a part of defend­ing the country than wondering if [an attack] will come and not being able to do anything about it.”

The missile crews do know where their ICBMs are targeted. The plan­ning and intelligence sections on the bomber side work together to as­semble the “bags” (big, leather briefcases) with detailed route and target information, as well as the “go codes” that tell the crews that the order to proceed to the target is a valid one. The crews study these maps and routes and get full brief­ings while on alert.

Security is tight, including per­sonnel security. Where control of or access to nuclear weapons is possi­ble, the “two-person concept” is in force. No one works alone, which practically eliminates any opportu­nity for sabotage or an unauthorized launch attempt.

Each missile Launch Control Center (LCC) controls ten missiles, but also monitors another LCC’s missiles. If one crew should attempt to launch when no order had been given, another crew miles away could prevent them from doing so.

There are positive control proce­dures for bombers, too, preventing the unauthorized “scrambling” of crews to their planes or, once air­borne, from arming weapons or pro­ceeding into enemy territory.

Basic to this security is the Per­sonnel Reliability Program (PRP), started in 1962 by Gen. Curtis E. LeMay. It keeps close watch on bomber and missile crews, mainte­nance troops, security police, muni­tions handlers, and everybody else who works around nuclear weap­ons.

One similarity between bomber and missile alert is the EWO certifi­cation process. Each member of every missile, bomber, and tanker crew must give a briefing to a senior-level wing officer. “We try to get the wing commander in for EWO certi­fication to emphasize to the crew member how important the mission is,” said Lt. Cot. Chuck Masonic, the 410th BMW’s chief of opera­tions and plans.

Much of the equipment, especial­ly in the communications area, is the same in the missile launch cap­sules and in the command posts of the bomber wings.

There are several types of com­munications systems, ranging from voice (Primary Alerting System, or PAS), to low-frequency transmis­sions (Survivable Low-Frequency Communications System, or SLFCS), to satellite communica­tions (AFSATCOM), providing re­dundancy in any contingency.

Another similarity is that missile crew members and alert command post controllers carry the same handguns. (SAC is switching from .38-caliber to 9-mm sidearms.)

Because Boeing built most of the Minuteman LCCs and all of the KC-135s (as well as the missiles and B-52s), the sliding seats in both the Launch Control Centers and the tankers are also quite similar to each other.

But flyers and missileers are dif­ferent breeds of “crew dogs” (as they call themselves). They kid each other whenever they get a chance. The missileers like to say that “bombers are fun, missiles are im­portant.”

Providing the Impact

“Sometimes the tip of the spear forgets to thank the people provid­ing the impact,” said Lt. Cot. Brian Horst, Commander of the 46th Air Refueling Squadron at K. I. Sawyer. “The alert crew is only one cog on a very big wheel. For sure, you aren’t going to go anywhere without main­tenance.”

Before the bombers and tankers are put on alert, they go through an intensive series of checks that lasts up to two days. On the B-52’s Last Sortie Before Ground Alert (LSBGA), the plane’s Offensive Avionics System (OAS) is given a final tune-up, and simulated weap­ons releases are made. Then the planes are moved to the Alert Air­craft Parking Area (AAPA), where they remain on five-minute alert for up to ninety days.

When the aircraft is on alert, the crew chief (or the assistant crew chief) is on alert with it. The crew chief preflights “his” aircraft every morning by powering up the plane, checking systems and equipment, and doing any maintenance that is required. “It is amazing to me that just sitting there, things on the air­craft break,” said A1C Anthony Uranger, a B-52H keeper at K. I. Sawyer.

If the crew chief working alone can’t fix a broken system or part, a specialist technician can be called in to help. The problem has to be cor­rected in four hours, though, or the airplane will be pulled off alert.

“A storm comes in, the missile sites go down, we go out,” said AIC Timothy Mouchi, a field mainte­nance technician supervisor at Malmstrom. “When we start servic­ing, we never know when we are coming home, if we’ll need cops, or when we’re going to have to RON [remain overnight].”

The biggest problem for both mis­sile and airplane maintainers alike is that their equipment is old, creating some reliability problems. “Thirty-­year-old aircraft tend to break by themselves,” said SrA. Andrew Neher, a KC-135A maintainer. “We’ve run so many sorties on them that something has to give sooner or later. You’ve got to pay more and more attention to them.”

Spare parts are often a problem, especially with the missiles. “A lot of items are just not available,” said SSgt. Dean Wells, a technician with the 341st Organizational Mainte­nance Squadron. “To get spares for the T/E [Transporter/Erector—how the missiles are transported and put into their launch facilities], we have to cannibalize from one of the others.” Added Col. Edward Burch­field, the 341st SMW’s Vice Com­mander, “When I was on alert, we couldn’t touch anything. Partly be­cause spares are short, now we have crews bringing [equipment] drawers back from alert so we can fix them.”

Supply squadrons spend a lot of time on the phone tracking down spares from other bases or from the depots. To improve parts availabili­ty for aircraft, SAC adopted the Readiness-Oriented Logistics Sys­tem (ROLS). Supply is located near the flight line so spares can be ob­tained quickly. For routine mainte­nance, mechanics can use the Parts Store’s drive-through or walk-up windows. Parts for the alert aircraft are delivered.

Missile maintainers don’t have a Parts Store, but priority mainte­nance at Malmstrom is greatly aided by Detachment 5 of the 37th Aero­space Rescue and Recovery Squad­ron. These Military Airlift Com­mand UH- IN helicopters take parts and people to the silos, which are spread over Malmstrom’s 23,000­-square-mile complex. The helicop­ters also perform “cop swaps,” fer­rying security policemen to and from the LCF (Launch Control Facility, the topside building at a missile site).

The security flights guard the area around the LCF and control access to the Launch Control Cen­ter. “We’ll get an OZ [Outer Zone—the area between the fence and the actual missile silo] alarm in the cap­sule, and we’ll have to send cops out to check,” said Capt. Bill Molter, assistant operations officer of the 564th SMS. “Nine times out often, it will just be a gopher, but the cops have to go out and check it.”

Other security police, or SPs, working out of campers in two-man teams, guard the Launch Facilities (LFs) when the intruder-detection system breaks down. The campers come complete with a gas stove for cooking. “A lot of people want to stay out there,” said CMSgt. Jesse McMurtry, the 341st SMW’s senior enlisted advisor. “They are their own bosses out there. Surprisingly, that’s where some of our youngest troops are.”

SPs working around the alert air­craft see less of the countryside. Even though the AAPA is fenced in and has closed-circuit TV surveil­lance and a pressure alarm system outside the fence, the SPs still set up an inner security zone around the aircraft. There is also a rifle squad in a Peacekeeper armored vehicle stationed in the compound. The SP force is usually tested once on every eight-hour shift.

“If it’s snowing outside and no­body can move, the SPs will come and get us,” said SSgt. Allan McFer­ran, the food-service supervisor in the alert facility at K. I. Sawyer. “It shows how important we are.” Chief McMurtry agreed. “The cooks set the whole tone at the LCE The first thing the SPs do when they get out there is ask, ‘Who’s the cook?’ They know who the good ones are.”

Off to Work

At a bomber wing, about 1,300 people directly support thirteen alert aircraft. In a missile wing, nearly 2,100 people support 200 missiles. It is only a matter of de­gree, but the missile folks seem to have a greater sense of urgency—once launched, a missile can’t be recalled.

“This is a stressful job. You’re always under the microscope,” said 1st Lt. Chris Harrington, a combat crew commander with the 490th SMS. “if you screw up on this job, you are screwing up with nuclear missiles.” Or with nuclear bombs, as is the case with the bombers.

“It is a lot harder on missile crews these days,” noted Colonel Burch­field. “Getting message traffic used to be a big deal. Now there is so much message traffic to make sure they get the word, that the crews are busy all the time. The systems break down much more frequently, and they always have to watch for things like that.”

The real addition to the bomber crew’s work load, however, has come from the increased emphasis SAC has put on its conventional mission. “The crews have a good time with conventional ops,” said Lt. Col. Dave Knowles, Command­er of the 644th Bomb Squadron at K. I. Sawyer. “They get to play Red Flag, drop bombs, and get the bene­fits from lots of training. The chal­lenge is tremendous, though, to be proficient at both nuclear and con­ventional operations.”

“In previous years, before cuts in personnel levels, we had the luxury of extra people,” said Col. Al Joersz, the 410th BMW Command­er. “Now we don’t have the luxury of all the people carrying their fair share. We’re all hustling and doing the best we can to be a productive work force.”

Going to the missile fields, the deputy missile crew commander usually picks up the truck, then heads to the operations building where crews first meet with their squadron (Pre-Predeparture), then with the rest of the alert crews from the other squadrons (Predeparture). Here they are given a briefing on conditions (road and weather), where the camper teams are, and other special interest items. There is a classified briefing as well.

The crews then take off for LCFs, which at Malmstrom may be any­where from one hour (Alpha-01) to four hours (Oscar-01) away from the base. The crews put 6,000,000 to 10,000,000 miles per year on the ve­hicle fleet. Driving out to the LCFs, the crews pass several missile silos that are just off the road. One LF at Malmstrom is literally in the back yard of a convenience store.

Once at the site, the new crew checks the seals on the equipment and takes an inventory of the classi­fied material before the other crew leaves. The outbound crew leaves by an elevator (the LCCs are be­tween sixty and 115 feet deep). Then the 110-ton blast door is shut.

Sometime after assumption of alert, the deputy sleeps (conditions permitting) in the bunk in the LCC. About 10:00 p.m., the commander hits the sack, which is in a cub­byhole in the Minuteman II LCCs and has a good bit more space around it in the Minuteman III cap­sules. The commander usually drives back to the base when the alert shift is over.

The missile crews are on alert for twenty-four hours eight times a month. Briefings, travel, and swap-out add considerable time, so the crews are away from home for six­teen days a month. On other days of the month, they train or stand by to substitute as needed.

The crews have to get a pre­scribed number of hours in the Mis­sile Procedures Trainer (MPT), an LCC simulator, every six months. “We give them problems not nor­mally encountered in the field,” said Capt. Larry Grundhauser of the Op­erations Training Division at Malm­strom. “They could [stand] 300 alerts and never have to replace a circuit breaker. They will likely nev­er see an unauthorized launch at­tempt.” The primary training em­phasis is EWO procedures. At least annually, the crews go through an exhaustive evaluation.

The missile maintenance crews have their own simulator to practice on. The T-9 is complete, down to the heavy blast door covering the silo. Every phase of operations, includ­ing emplacing the training round and attaching simulated reentry ve­hicles (RVs), can be carried out.

Alert for the bomber and tanker crews is considerably different. At K. I. Sawyer, assumption of alert is on Thursday. After swapout, the alert crews can leave the com­pound, but they are tied to the AAPA by a short leash.

The crews must sleep in the alert facility, but other than a morning briefing and their daily training schedule, they can go anywhere on base where there is a klaxon. How­ever, they must go in government vehicles (rather than their own cars) so their whereabouts can be tracked.

Training for B-52 aircrews con­sists of EWO study, escape and eva­sion procedures, and, at many bases, time in the full-motion, six-axis Weapon System Trainer (WST), which is so realistic it can be “crashed.” The whole six-man B-52 crew can train at one time in the WST. Tanker crew training is sim­ilar.

A relatively new area for SAC air­crew training is tactics. “Our crews had gotten in the mindset that if you had to go to war, you were as good as dead,” said Lt. Col. Bill Barton, the chief of the 410th BMW’s tactics branch. “They now think that they can take on the enemy, beat him, then go hit their targets.” There are even tactics classes for crews on the unarmed tankers. “Tanker tactics are basically to run, but there are some real sneaky things they can do,” noted Colonel Barton.

Key Ingredients

Initiatives in the “Year of the Alert Force” have gone a long way toward improving the conditions in the LCFs and alert facilities. There are game tables, big-screen TV sets, and VCRs. Most LCFs have a satel­lite dish, and the launch crews will soon be getting larger TVs (the ones in the facilities now can hardly been seen from the deputy’s chair) and a splitter cable so the people down­stairs can watch one show while the folks upstairs watch another. Weight rooms are set up in all alert facilities and are coming to the LCFs.

The launch crews have another pressure vent called the “Captain’s Log.” This notebook is filled with just about anything the crew mem­ber wants to say. There are cartoons, with names and captions changed, anecdotes, and some general letting off of steam.

Alert crews can phone home, and airplane crews can see their families at visitation centers. The visitation center building, located near the alert compound, has a kitchen, a large den area with TV, and several rooms where families can dine in privacy.

“This place kind of defeats the purpose sometimes, though,” noted Debbie LaPiana, wife of 1st Lt. Pe­ter LaPiana, a KC-135 copilot. “Sometimes the stress builds, with kids running around, the noise, and not really being able to relax with everything going on here. Still, I am glad they have this place. It’s good for the families to get to spend some time together.”

Alert affects the families just as much as the crew members. “My son’s first words were ‘Daddy ‘lert,’ ” said Elizabeth Danforth, wife of Capt. Steven Danforth, a B-52 pilot. “There is a period of ad­justment every time he goes on or comes off alert.”

Holidays are tough, too. “It was kind of lonely on Christmas,” noted Candy Molter, wife of the 564th SMS’s Captain Molter.

Despite the hours and conditions (K. I. Sawyer had 210 inches of snow in 1986), most of the people making up the alert force like their jobs. “I go out and get it done. I always feel real good when I go home.” Added Airman Neher, “I get tangible results. That tanker goes up, and it’s something I did. I put it there.”

Women are very much a part of the alert force these days. There have been a few adjustment prob­lems for the women, some from older hard-line chauvinists, but mostly in terms of facilities. Other than that, they have assimilated well into the tanker and Minuteman crew force and are regarded as “just an­other crew dog.” That may be the ultimate compliment.

Change for the Better

“We are doing some little things that are generating a lot of payback for a minimal effort,” said Colonel Knowles. Some examples:

• The tires on the SPs’ Peace­keepers are being changed from sol­id rubber to regular inflatable tires.

The ride is much smoother, and the SPs are very happy.

• The crew vehicles for the mis­sile alert crews are getting AM/FM radios, cruise control, and air-con­ditioning. Not that important until you drive 140 miles each way with­out them.

• The cooks at the alert facility at K. I. Sawyer are being rotated for duty at a nearby four-star restau­rant. The extra experience they gain is making for a much higher quality program in the alert facility.

“The crew and the crew chief merge through the nose-art pro­gram,” said Lt. Col. Mike Link, Op­erations Officer of K. I. Sawyer’s 307th AREFS. This program has been a big morale booster.

Once a design has been picked by the crew and the crew chief and ap­proved by the field maintenance squadron, it is advertised, and art­ists are found to paint it. The logo on the KC-135 “North Wind” was painted by an NCO out of the photo lab.

A major change for all squadrons was the addition of an adjutant who handles administrative and “addi­tional” duties that the launch crews were previously required to per­form.

Another major effort spreading through SAC is self-help.

“It became a competition among the alert crews to see who could get the most done to the squadron building in a weekend,” said Colo­nel Knowles. The supply squadron at K. I. Sawyer added a second sto­ry to their offices, and the jet-engine mechanics saved $77,000 by redo­ing their floor with a light-reflective material themselves.

The ultimate self-help effort, however, has to belong to the 301st Air Refueling Wing. This new wing at Malmstrom, which was not to get its first KC- 1 35R until October, built everything it needed to be an opera­tional wing. The wing started with a condemned hangar and then built shops, offices, and conference rooms, finishing the job for less than $200,000.

The major changes to the alert force came from the crews them­selves. As part of the “Year of the Alert Force” effort, the crews were given the opportunity to start an Airmanship Program. “I was as­tounded at the things they came up with,” said Col. Bob Summers, Commander of the 564th SMS at Malmstrom.

Some of the changes that have already been implemented: elimina­tion of gender-specific crews (which were a scheduling nightmare); changing crew selection for the an­nual “Olympic Arena” competition, including line crews at all SAC con­ferences affecting crew procedures; giving crews recognition with 100/200 alert certificates and pins and end-of-tour certificates; and getting issue glasses changed from thick, black, plastic frames to wire-rims.

The missile crews have also been influential in getting evaluations changed from numerical scores (anything below ninety percent was failing) to simply Pass/Fail. “This ‘clean sheet’ approach will see if the crews are combat-ready,” said Lt. Col. Conrad Strickland, the 12th SMS commander at Malmstrom. “Not whether they are 97.7 percent perfect, but if they can fight the war.”

Under one of the Airmanship Ini­tiatives the airplane side came up with, both crew proficiency and Aviation Career Enhancement (ACE—a program in which copilots practice being aircraft commanders in T-37s) flights can now be made while on alert. The crews fly for a short time in an off-alert bomber or tanker in the area around the base. Since this is such a radical change, SAC is edging into this program slowly.

While changes are being made in alert, one thing won’t change. As Lieutenant Hesterman says, “Alert is ordinary people doing an extraor­dinary job.”