GREAT FALLS — The Air Force hosted town hall meetings in Lewistown and Great Falls this week to discuss a major missile modernization project and the impact it will have on Montana communities.
The Sentinel project will include modernization of launch facilities, control centers, and other ground infrastructure across the 13,800 square mile missile complex of Malmstrom Air Force Base.
The project includes the renovation of 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 in Montana, 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 & Clark, Meagher, Teton, and Wheatland.
On Thursday night before a crowd of almost 400 at Great Falls High School, Malmstrom Air Force Baseand other Air Force leaders and stakeholders talked about the impacts of the Sentinel program.
Sentinel is a modernization of the existing Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic systems. FE Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming will be first on the renovation list.
Malmstrom’s tentative timeline goes from 2025 to 2033. Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota will be updated following Malmstrom.
“From an economic perspective, what you're looking at is a fundamental investment in Montana, in the future defense of our country, in an essential capability that will last long into the future,” said Colonel Barry Little, Commander of the 341st Missile Wing at Malmstrom Air Force Base.
The project will update all launch facilities and some control centers. It will replace all 150 missiles in the nearly 14-thousand square mile Malmstrom complex and could result in hundreds of miles of utility corridors to connect facilities, raising the issue of how landowners will be compensated for the loss of their property during construction. Taylor Walton, the Sentinel real estate acquisition lead says the Army Corps of Engineers is bound to offer a fair market price while taking factors like crops into consideration.
“As the negotiators come out to your property, you'll have the opportunity to walk with those appraisers so they can ask them questions,” said Walton. “You can hear about the process and when the time comes in making that offer.”
The program will also create 50-to-60-acre parcels known as “workforce hubs” in Lewistown and Great Falls. The hubs will be big enough to house an estimated 3,000 employees.
With that many more workers in the area, Great Falls City Commissioner Rick Tryon asked if there would be any government support for additional law enforcement.
Rick Bartholomew, the Sentinel acquisition program manager with Hill Air Force Base in Utah, presented the projected impact of Sentinel for Montana and said his group is engaging with communities and elected officials about the scale and scope of the program. He says Sentinel team members are engaging early and often with communities about the impacts so they know about the scale and scope of what’s coming.
“We're trying to inform everybody,” said Bartholomew. “So that when it comes to the type of dollars that can be spent on what, obviously we can provide the narrative behind the need. And that's what our documentation is for.”
And what happens to the workforce hub when the project is complete? One citizen asked if it could be used for homeless housing and was told by a representative with the project’s contractor that could be possible under language in the environmental impact statement.
“It can be returned to the state it was in before the workforce hub was constructed or you can work with local stakeholders to find a solution that works for the communities,” said Matthew Dillow, Northrop Grummon ICBM Regional Operations.
Dillow added that most of the workers brought in to the workforce hubs usually don’t brings familes so he doesn’t expect a major impact on local schools. He says there will be some impact on local healthcare facilities. But he adds they do intend to provide their own basic health care services possibly in the form of an urgent care center.
The current missiles will be moved to Malmstrom one at a time, before being shipped out of state to be decommissioned.
One attendee asked if the Sentinel system will signal the start an arms race.
Brigadier General Colin Connor, the ICBM Modernization Director at Barksdale Air Force Base, replied, “We're not building additional ICBM’s or adding anything. We're simply replacing what we currently have.”