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​Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James coins MSgt. Cory La Salle, 741st Missile Security Forces Squadron convoy response force section chief, at Malmstrom AFB, Mont., Jan. 5, 2017. Air Force photo by A1C Magen M. Reeves.

​—By Jenn Rowell

The first visit to Malmstrom Air Force Base in late January 2014 came just weeks into Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James’ tenure and was prompted by the discovery that about 90 nuclear officers stationed there had been cheating on proficiency exams.

On Jan. 5, James made her fifth and final visit as Secretary to follow up on changes implemented since, such as adding personnel and funding to the intercontinental ballistic missile career field, modernization, and the Force Improvement Program.

“The cheating was the tip of the iceberg,” James said. “I believe in follow up and it’s best to do it personally.”

James and Lt. Gen. Jack Weinstein, Air Force deputy chief of staff for strategic deterrence and nuclear integration, met with leadership and airmen at Malmstrom, as well as Minot and F.E. Warren Air Force Bases, and James said her assessment is that “we’ve made great strides.” Morale has improved, she said, and modernization efforts have shown airmen that the nuclear enterprise has a future. But there’s work still to be done and James said that she has recommended to the Trump transition team that the next administration keep a strong focus on the nuclear enterprise.

The current Minuteman III system is approaching the end of its lifespan and work has begun on its replacement, the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent, which reached Milestone A in August. The Air Force has said the new system needs to operate until 2075 and cybersecurity is being designed into the replacement system from the beginning, James said.

Despite the recurring conversations about the need for the nuclear triad, James said she’s confident the GBSD program will stay on track. She said there will always be discussion of the nature of the triad, but the preponderant view is that the US will move forward with modernization. The conversation has value, but James said that other nations have or are developing nuclear weapons and “the triad has served us well.”

As the land-based nuclear missile system is being modernized, cybersecurity is being paid particular attention, James said. Though the so-called antiquated system is sometimes considered a negative, the reality is the system is hardwired and not tied to the Internet, meaning it’s virtually unhackable, James said. The Secretary and Weinstein said they aren’t worried about hacking threats to the current system and preventing cyber weaknesses in the replacement system are a top priority.

The Air Force is also working to replace the UH-1N Huey used to support security of the missile complex at Malmstrom, Minot, and F.E. Warren. The Air Force initially considered using the Economy Act to purchase UH-60 Black Hawks, but decided last summer to proceed with an open competition. The draft request for proposals for the Huey replacement was released in December and James said she was optimistic the program would stay on track, but another continuing resolution in Congress would delay the process.

James said if Congress approves full defense appropriations by the time the current CR is up in April, the Huey replacement program can proceed as scheduled. Another CR would delay the project unless the Air Force can secure a waiver from the budget rules, known as an anomaly, for the Huey replacement program, as it did for munitions purchases in the current CR.

Even as the Hueys are awaiting their replacement, James said the Air Force will continue to fly them as part of a multi-layered defense of the ICBM complex.

As she’s ending her tenure leading the Air Force, James said she’s “personally proud of the nuclear enterprise” and her advice to her successor is to keep the focus on the people. She also advised her yet-to-be-named successor to continue following up with nuclear bases, traveling to northern tier bases,​ and “seeing it with your own eyes.”