Fragile like a bomb - not fragile like a flower: Women behind USAF ICBMs

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Tristan Truesdell and Lauren O'Connor
  • 341st Missile Wing Public Affairs

The intercontinental ballistic missileers sit alert each hour of every day to provide the nation's unstoppable nuclear deterrent. In honor of International Women's Day, teams of female missileers across all ICBM wings participated in a coordinated, simultaneous training launch. This key-turn simulation was the first time a training launch of this nature has occurred and offers, as all historic moments do, a chance to look back on how far we've come.

ICBMs in the force
Minuteman III ICBMs are one leg of the nuclear triad and maintain continuous alert to provide the most immediate reaction capability to strike global targets within thirty minutes of being launched.

The continuous alert status ensures the President has a weapon system that achieves day-to-day deterrence objectives, but can also provide responsive combat capabilities if directed.

Enduring nuclear deterrence provided by ICBMs exists as the result of a tightly-orchestrated effort executed daily by personnel operating from command centers, planning targeting packages, conducting maintenance, providing security and operating from a variety of alert facilities.

Maj. Kristin Selvidge and Capt. Brittany Baver, 625th Strategic Operations Squadron planners, assist in conducting the targeting for the ICBM systems.

Targeting ensures strategic coverage for ICBMs. Selvidge and Baver receive inputs and process the targeting changes through validation checks, then transmit the changes directly to launch control centers, where they have the capability to remotely assign targets for Minuteman III ICBMs.

"We are in constant communication with the missile wings every day," said Selvidge. "Our responsibility is to verify and maintain operational readiness for targeting operations.

"Working with the targeters, our system's flight develops and maintains our targeting systems and software," she continued. "Sustainment of our systems is paramount to what we do."

The locations for each of these functions are dispersed throughout the United States, but are closely synchronized to produce the combat-ready ICBM force.

"The 625th STOS is a team of nuclear professionals, trained and equipped to execute and support the global strike warfighters through continuous, rapid, accurate and survivable nuclear operations," said Baver. "We work closely with United States Strategic Command, Joint Functional Component Command for Global Strike and 20th Air Force to maintain current and accurate targeting for the land-based leg of the nuclear triad."

As nuclear planners in the targeting flight, Selvidge and Baver manage and direct targeting activities for the nation's 450 Minuteman III ICBM fleet.

"We play a major role in the nuclear assurance and deterrence calculation...without the targeting piece of the equation our weapons have no place to go, and the war plan falls apart. We are a small squadron with a mighty role to play," said Baver.

Personnel at these locations work in an extremely synchronized manner to guarantee the nation's Minuteman III missiles are under continuous control, secured and maintained so that if given the order, missileers can deliver some of the most deadly firepower in the world to their intended targets.

The first all-female alert
"We have determined that introducing females onto gender-specific crews is feasible and have initiated plans to implement this concept beginning this year," wrote Gen. Bennie L. Davis to Lt. Gen. Duane H. Cassidy, deputy chief of staff for manpower and personnel in February 1985.

After conducting a study to introduce female Airmen into Minuteman and Peacekeeper crews, it was proven that female Airmen could, in fact, take on the roles of then-all-male roles. The study focused on mission effectiveness, cost, equal opportunity in career progression, scheduling and morale.

Written surveys, telephone interviews and one-on-one interviews were accomplished with 1,400 officers to obtain overall perceptions of the gender-specific crew concept, according to Davis' letter to Cassidy.

"Since their introduction in 1978, women have performed admirably in the Titan weapon system," concluded Davis. "I'm pleased to expand the opportunity for women to serve in our nation's deterrent force."

Although female Airmen have been conducting ICBM alert duty before the study was released, following Davis' announcement to use gender-specific all-female crews, on Mar. 25, 1986, the first all-female Minuteman crew was conducted at Whiteman Air Force Base, Missouri. This was the first time an all-female crew accomplished Minuteman combat crew duty under the gender-specific crew policy.

Full integration of mixed-gender crews began Air Force-wide on Jan. 1, 1988. Since that time, women across the ranks and duties of the ICBM mission have proven how impactful this decision was.

Women behind ICBMs today
This year, in recognition of Women's History Month, the women who have the daunting responsibility of ensuring the ICBM force remains on alert and combat ready, are demonstrating they are fully capable in their wartime role.

"You deter through fear...the enemy must know that we can destroy [their] military forces," according to Gen. Thomas Power, commander of the now deactivated Strategic Air Command. "Our policy is deterrence, but if deterrence fails, we'll damn well win."

Today, women fill critical roles in each area of the ICBM mission.

"I don't have to define myself as a 'female missileer'. I'm a missileer first and it just so happens to be that I am female," said 1st Lt. Hunter Pace, 740th Missile Squadron missile combat crew commander. "When we have days like International Women's Day, it allows us to take a step back and look how far we've come and celebrate that progress."

Women are leading on the ICBM front lines and to celebrate the powerful impact women have had on the ICBM mission, female missile crews from the 90th Missile Wing, 91st Missile Wing and 341st Missile Wing operations groups, along with airborne launch control system crew members from the 625th STOS simulated releasing some of the U.S. Air Force's most powerful weapons by conducting a synchronized missile launch from their four locations as part of their combat training.

"Our mission is critical to our national defense because we are the most responsive leg of the nation's nuclear triad. We can reach anywhere in the world in a matter of minutes," said Lt. Col. Amanda Filiowich, 321st Missile Squadron director of operations. "The nuclear missile operators are highly trained, highly skilled officers with the most powerful weapon system in the United States arsenal under their command."

In addition to ICBMs, Airborne Launch Control Systems is a force multiplier that has a role to play when missiles are launched.

"ALCS complicates war planning for any adversary due to our capabilities to launch ICBMs from the air - in the event launch control centers are not able to launch," said Capt. Grazia Castagna, 625th STOS ALCS intelligence officer.

Capt. Castagna and Capt. Stephanie Konvalin, 625th STOS strike planners, are the only females directly supporting the ALCS mission.

"By being on alert 24/7/365, the ALCS forces an enemy to target 495 assets in order to destroy the combat capabilities of the ICBM leg of the triad," said Konvalin. "Without the system, an enemy would only have to destroy 45 launch control centers to cripple the force. We add more survivability to an already survivable force."

Women have served the military for several decades and continue to break barriers in new roles today.

"I'm so proud of all the women who came before us, the women today who are serving the United States Air Force, and here at Malmstrom," said Col. Anita Feugate Opperman, 341st Missile Wing commander. "They are all working hard to create a stronger and more inclusive total force of tomorrow."