HELENA – The Air Force is recycling or reusing everything from intercontinental ballistic missiles to refrigerators and beds after deactivating 55 launch sites and crew centers in northern Montana.
A painstaking two-year process of shutting down and stripping the sites was finished in August. The missiles and warheads have been returned to the Air Force supply system to be used at other sites, said Col. Jeffrey Frankhouser, commander of the 341st Maintenance Group at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Great Falls.
Other equipment is being checked out and returned to the supply system or will be sold for scrap.
“It’s not like demolishing a house,” Frankhouser said. “This was a very methodical process.”
The Defense Department said in 2006 it would deactivate 50 Minuteman III missiles, 10 percent of the nation’s ICBM arsenal, as it reshaped itself into a more agile fighting force that can take on terrorists as well as conventional foes.
The next year, the Pentagon said 50 launch sites in Montana would be deactivated to accomplish the cuts, along with five missile-alert facilities with beds, appliances and other accommodations for crews.
The sites were overseen by Malmstrom. The base still manages 150 other missiles, and another 300 are overseen by F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Cheyenne, Wyo., and Minot Air Force Base near Minot, N.D.
The work of dismantling the Montana sites began in July 2007.
Capt. Franklin Adams of the 341st Missile Maintenance Squadron said the total number of items removed would be in the tens of thousands if all the individual components are counted.
Most were sent to an Air Force Materiel Command facility at Hill Air Force Base, Utah, to be checked out. Officials there said they are gathering components from the missiles and ground installations for reuse.
“Those folks at Hill Air Force Base gave us a ‘save’ list,” Frankhouser said. “Each item comes with very specific recovery instructions” on how to remove, pack and ship it.
Among the bulkier pieces were 10 doors weighing 14,000 pounds each. Resembling the door to a bank vault, they were used to secure passageways into the launch sites.
Crews also removed equipment containing oil, fuel or other hazardous material that could leak.
The deactivated sites, in Toole and Pondera counties, have been sealed off and the Air Force still patrols them.
Adams said it took at least 28,000 hours of labor by crews specially trained for the work. At any one time, a crew of seven to 10 worked at individual sites with cranes, flatbed trucks and vans. Adams said the work was completed without injuries or accidents.
“It’s highly specialized work and a very focused career field,” said Lt. Col. James Porter, commander of the 341st Missile Maintenance Squadron. “Perfection is the standard we hold them to.”
The Air Force has deactivated many other missiles, including models that preceded the Minuteman III and all 50 of the 10-warhead Peacekeeper missiles at Warren Air Force Base.
“I don’t want to give the impression that it’s routine. It certainly is not,” Frankhouser said.
Deactivating the 50 Minuteman III missiles in Montana is expected to save about $3 million a year in operating costs at Malmstrom. The base has eliminated 457 military jobs but no civilian positions as a result of the missile reductions.
Malmstrom now has about 3,400 active-duty service members.
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