LEWISTOWN - The U.S. Department of Defense is making plans for a massive, years-long project that will bring significant impacts to Montana – upgrading the nuclear missiles scattered across the state.
Earlier this month, the department released an extensive draft environmental impact statement for the deployment of the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent, or Sentinel, project. It will replace the aging Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile system.
The draft EIS gives the clearest look yet at the extent of the work, which will take place in seven western states. It includes the complete renovation of all 450 existing missile launch facilities, the construction of two dozen new missile alert facilities, and 62 new communication towers within the missile fields overseen by Malmstrom Air Force Base, Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota, and F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming.
The 341st Missile Wing at Malmstrom is responsible for 150 launch facilities – the unmanned silos where missiles are located – and 15 missile alert facilities – where military personnel monitor and operate the system. They’re spread across a 13,800-square-mile missile field that covers parts of eight counties: Cascade, Chouteau, Fergus, Judith Basin, Lewis and Clark, Meagher, Teton, and Wheatland.
Russell Bartholomew, a project manager with the U.S. Air Force, says the work will start at Warren before beginning at Malmstrom, so construction is still several years away in Montana. He said it could begin around 2025, with the building of several new facilities on the base, before shifting to the other locations.
“There’s going to be a considerable amount of activity,” he said.
The current missiles will be moved to Malmstrom one at a time, before being shipped out of state to be decommissioned. The existing facilities will have to be upgraded to be ready for the new missiles.
“All 150 launch facilities will be renovated and made like new,” said Bartholomew. “The existing 15 missile alert facilities – eight or more of those, up to all of them, may be renovated and replaced.”
Bartholomew said, in the future, some of the current MAFs may be unmanned, but the land will remain part of the system.
In addition, crews could build up to 1,200 miles of “utility corridors” connecting the various facilities. Bartholomew acknowledged that part of the project could have the greatest impact on the general public, and he noted that leaders are looking at options to reduce the number of new corridors needed.
To support the project, leaders are planning two “workforce hubs,” one in Great Falls and one in Lewistown. Each will be around 50 to 60 acres and include housing, dining, medical and recreational facilities for work crews. Between the two locations, they will host more than 2,000 temporary workers – with up to 3,000 at the peak of construction.
State Sen. Dan Bartel, R-Lewistown, says local leaders have already started conversations with the Air Force and their contractors, Northrop Grumman. He said he believes the project will have benefits for the areas he represents – including dollars coming into the local economy – but it’s important for everyone to be planning ahead for when the work starts.
“This could be a huge positive for Lewistown and the surrounding community,” said Bartel. “As all communities, we have housing issues, but if we get ahead of the game, we should be able to work out those housing issues and work with Northrop Grumman when they come to town.”
Bartel said he hopes they can put permanent infrastructure in place for the Lewistown workforce hub, so that after work is completed, it can be converted for community uses – whether housing or something else.
The Air Force will be accepting public comment on the draft EIS through Aug. 15. They will also hold in-person public hearings Tuesday, July 26, from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. at the Mansfield Center for the Performing Arts in Great Falls, and Thursday, July 28, from 3 to 6 p.m. at the Central Montana Fair in Lewistown.
If you cannot attend an in-person hearing, you can register online for one of two virtual hearings, set for 4:30 p.m. Mountain Time, August 8 and 9.
Bartholomew said the Air Force values public input.
“We’re here to communicate early and often,” he said.
He said they can already point to one way they’ve applied public comment in their plans: considering downward-facing lights at launch facilities because of concerns about the impact on “dark skies.”
Both Bartholomew and Bartel said they’re optimistic the military and the public can get on the same page before work begins.
“A lot of folks obviously are going to be impacted, and a lot of questions are going to be how they’re going to be impacted,” said Bartel. “But I think, as a whole, we’ve lived with these missiles for years – they were put in in the 60s and they’re being upgraded now – and so I think we’ll be able to monitor that.”
“The Air Force is a partner in the region just as much as the people who live there,” Bartholomew said. “We’ve been there for 50 years, and the plan is to continue to be there for another 50 years, so we want to make sure that we’re planning properly to account for the impacts of such a construction project.”