INSF visits Mighty Ninety

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Members of the International Nuclear Security Forum received a crash course in operational nuclear deterrence May 24, 2022, during a visit to F.E. Warren Air Force Base.

The INSF is a project project that unites a diverse group of international experts to identify, create, and support strategies for reducing nuclear terrorism risks, according to its website.

During the visit, the Mighty Ninety provided the INSF members with a full immersion of how the deterrence mission is conducted, including demonstrations of how the weapons are kept safe and secure by defenders, online and operational through the efforts of maintainers and the role of missileers in bringing it all together.

One of the efforts of the Stimson Center is working toward nonproliferation of nuclear weapons, and the visit offered the INSF members a clear look on how nuclear security is ensured by the 90th Missile Wing, as well as the 91st and 341st Missile Wings at Minot Air Force Base, North Dakota and Malmstrom Air Force Base, Montana.

Enter Lt. Col. Mary Yelnicker, a Fellow of the Partnerships in Proliferation Prevention program with INSF and a missileer by trade, who organized the visit for the INSF members.  

“The INSF members came to F.E. Warren to learn about ICBM security practices and infrastructure and I accompanied them to act as an interface between the two organizations,” said Yelnicker.

Yelnicker joined the INSF as a fellow through the National Defense Fellows Program, and organized the tour with her knowledge and experience as a missileer.

“The National Defense Fellows program takes Air Force officers and puts them into think tanks for a year,” said Yelnicker. “The opportunity lets them take a year to think about big topics, but also to interface and take what we know and bring it to those think tanks to add to what they do while they help us think in different ways.”

The first part of the day involved a presentation from defenders, along with a question and answer session.  The guests were briefed on convoy operations, facility security and a description of the vehicles used by security forces to ensure security on site.

Following the visit to the Peacekeeper High Bay, the visitors toured U-01, where Master Sgt. Michael Watson, the senior enlisted leader for Detachment 21, 373rd Training Squadron, explained the working parts of a launch facility and the role of maintainers in ensuring the system remains effective and lethal.

After lunch, the 90th Operations Group provided a brief on the roles and responsibilities of the missileers, followed by a demonstration of the Missile Procedures Trainer.

Lastly, they visited with the 90th Maintenance Group, touring the vehicle section and a payload transporter, then capping the day with a nuclear accountability discussion.

The visitors left with ideas and recommendations to in turn give to some of their partner agencies dealing with nuclear material.

Some of the best practices employed by the Air Force are opportunities to share with other entities responsible for nuclear materials, said Sneha Nair, research associate and coordinator for the Partnerships in Proliferation Prevention program and the Nuclear Security program with the INSF. Being able to support efforts to strengthen nuclear security by giving partner organizations very doable things – like create a checklist.

The members of the INSF in attendance gathered a better understanding of the massive responsibilities levied on the missile wings of 20th Air Force, while acknowledging the benefit of the visit to their own positions within the INSF.

“Knowing that there is a really strong precedent for securing large quantities of nuclear weapons on a huge scale is reassuring,” said Nair. “It’s very helpful for us to round out our education and our understanding of the work done at missile bases and how it fits into the broader theme of nuclear security.”

Following the tour of the installation, the response to the missile wing’s methods of nuclear surety received glowing review.

“The Department of Defense would be the foundational base of a pyramid of nuclear security,” said Christina McAllister, Fellow and Deputy Director of the Partnerships in Proliferation Prevention program with INSF. “They are the gold standard of how nuclear security is conducted and you have the crown jewels right here.”

Partners in nuclear deterrence may come from different mission sets and have different responsibilities, but ensuring ICBMs are handled safely and securely is a common goal.