MALMSTROM AIR FORCE BASE, Mont. - At any given moment, Malmstrom Air Force Base's 15 missile alert facilities represent one-third of our nation's land-based intercontinental ballistic missile force.
Spread out across a complex that covers 13,800 square miles of central Montana, these MAFs — or more specifically, the underground launch control centers that each MAF supports — stand ready to launch the 341st Missile Wing's force of Minuteman III missiles upon orders from the president of the United States.
If communication to these LCCs was ever lost and missile combat crews on duty couldn't receive emergency action messages vital to national security, it would impact the nuclear deterrence the wing provides daily.
The 341st Missile Maintenance Squadron's missile communications section ensures the equipment needed to transmit and receive these important messages is in good repair and operating properly. The 23-person shop regularly dispatches teams to the field to maintain the communication equipment in the LCCs and at launch facilities. It also keeps a command post team on 24/7 standby.
Senior Airman Travis Grimit (left) and Staff Sgt. Donald Hoffman, both from the 341st Missile Maintenance Squadron missile communications section, verify a mass storage unit is operating properly June 10, 2015 at Malmstrom Air Force Base, Mont. Missile communications technicians maintain the nuclear command and control communications systems at each of Malmstrom's 15 launch control centers and the Support Information Network between LCCs and Malmstrom's 150 Minuteman launch facilities. (U.S. Air Force photo by John Turner)
“The most important systems we work on are NC3 (nuclear command and control communications) systems,” said Tech. Sgt. Christopher Burns, assistant noncommissioned officer in charge of missile communications.
These systems include ultrahigh frequency and extremely high frequency Milstar satellite systems, and UHF radio systems in the LCCs. The section also maintains very high frequency and very low frequency radio systems.
Missile communications stood up its own laboratory last summer. Technicians now repair components they bring back from the field, a task that was previously done by the 341st Maintenance Operation Squadron's electronics laboratory. This makes missile communications a more self-sufficient enterprise.
“It gives us better systems knowledge,” said Senior Airman Travis Grimit, 341st MMXS missile communications instructor. “If a part is bad in the field, we bring it back and we're the ones who fix it. We know what's wrong with it. If you're the same person who troubleshot it in the field and you know what's wrong with it, you can help narrow down how to fix it.”
Additionally, the section is completing a maintenance trainer that replicates the systems in an LCC. These two resources help technicians become experts with the systems they are responsible for, and also troubleshoot problems in the field from base.
Technicians provide diagnostic support to missile combat crews at the LCCs. Many issues — restoring communication with a satellite, for example — can be resolved by telephone. This eliminates unnecessary dispatches to the field.
“For just one troubleshooting interaction, we could potentially be saving our guys a 278-mile round trip and potentially a 16-hour day,” Burns said.
This could save several thousand miles of driving through the week, he said. And because at least two Airmen comprise a dispatch team, the number of man hours saved each week can be 100 or more, which frees up technicians for critical maintenance tasks.
“Unfortunately not every problem is solved over the phone,” Burns said. “That is why we dispatch every day, doing our job keeping NC3 systems and all other communication systems in the missile field up to ensure our nuclear mission is fully capable.”
Missile communications is also responsible for the Support Information Network that runs between the LCCs and each launch facility. This network provides the direct communication between the missile crews in the capsules and maintenance teams out on site. While the SIN is an important system comprised of many subsystems, this network represents only a portion of the missile communications section's realm.
“It's been a misunderstanding that what we do as a shop is go out and fix the SIN lines to the LFs,” Burns said. “That's actually just a very small part of everything we do. SIN lines is like the tip of the iceberg because what everybody doesn't see is actually a lot more than what they know we do.”
Staff Sgt. Donald Hoffman, 341st MMXS missile communications critical task supervisor, agrees.
“What they don't see is that every day we are troubleshooting satellite systems and radio systems,” he said.
Grimit has been in the missile communications section for three and half years, and it is the only job he's had within the missile maintenance career field.
“I love it here,” he said. “It's fun solving a problem and fixing it. I like that.”
By John Turner, U.S. Air Force
341st Missile Wing Public Affairs
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