Top priority for nuclear forces amid coronavirus pandemic: stay healthy

Top priority for nuclear forces amid coronavirus pandemic: stay healthy

WASHINGTON – COVID-19 has hit the military, from shuttered recruiting stations to a ravaged crew of an aircraft carrier.

Fewer missions, though, have higher stakes than standing watch over intercontinental ballistic missiles or manning the planes that serve as an airborne command post if nuclear war ignites.

For the 33,000 airmen and civilians in the Air Force's Global Strike Command, staying healthy has never been more important. Personnel assigned to the command descend into missile silos on ranges across wintry, windswept plains, fly bombers and keep the "Doomsday Plane" ready if needed.

"Right now across the command, we are working to make sure that our ICBMs remain on alert and our critical command and control capabilities stay viable," said Air Force Gen. Timothy Ray, who leads strike command. "We've been thinking about this particular issue for quite a while. We've been at it for well over a month thinking about it, thinking about how we operate through it. And I'm pleased to say for now – I knock on a lot of wood here – is that the plan is working very well."

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Gen. Timothy M. Ray is Commander, Air Force Global Strike Command.

The risks of COVID-19 are playing out in real time.

The USS Theodore Roosevelt, the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, is "sidelined" in Guam, in the words of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, with 600 of its 4,800-member crew infected by the coronavirus.

Recruiters have retreated from storefront stations to the web, reaching out to prospects online.

Ray's mission benefits in that many critical sites like missile silos are located in sparsely populated regions of the country that lend themselves to social distancing. But the airmen who operate them aren't hermits. They have lives, families, babies.

People like Capt. Bridgett Rebbeck, 26.

Air Force Capt. Bridgett Rebbeck is a missile combat crew commander. She lives with her husband Braden Barber and their daughter, 18-month-old Arden.

"I'm a missile combat crew commander," she said from her home in Minot, N.D. "So I'm part of a two-person team who goes underground to pull alerts in the Launch Control Center. So when I'm down there, my responsibilities include things from maintenance to security. But we're also ready to launch if the president does direct that."

Rebbeck, her husband Braden Barber, 27, and their daughter, 18-month-old Arden, are avoiding playgrounds and play groups. Doing what they can to stay healthy and keep Rebbeck ready for her missions.

Barber, who stays home with Arden, said that means more video chats with family and friends, fewer trips to the grocery store.

"So as far as our personal situation, it's just a little bit extra isolation," Barber said. "A little bit more caution."

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Airmen from the 90th Maintenance Group are responsible for maintaining and repairing ICBMs on alert status Dec. 18, 2019, within the F.E. Warren Air Force Base missile complex in Wyoming, one of three missile bases part of Air Force Global Strike Command. The Minuteman III replaced the Peacekeeper at the base in the 1970s.

For Rebbeck, extra caution and isolation have become second nature.

"We're kind of used to the isolation as a career field," she said. "We're used to being with only one other person downstairs. And so we, you know, we clean the capsule before the next crew shows up. We make sure that we're washing our hands frequently."

Air Force Lt. Col. Derek Ligon, 44, is deputy commander of the 595th Command and Control Group under the 8th Air Force, which helps assure the Boeing 747-200s outfitted to serve as command posts can fly in the event of nuclear war. The E-4B jet, or National Airborne Operations Center, has been dubbed the Doomsday Plane.

There are about 700 personnel assigned to the planes, including pilots, communication specialists, maintenance crews and security forces.

COVID-19 has required them to split like a hockey team with three or four shifts to ensure the plane can be flown in an instant, Ligon said. One E-4B is always on alert and requires 60 to 75 people aboard to run it.

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A Boeing E-4B landed at the Des Moines International Airport as part of a training exercise Monday. The plane can act as the National Airborne Operations Center for the president, secretary of defense and Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Training and administrative tasks have been cut back. Staying healthy and ready is now the No. 1 priority, he said.

"Listen, your job now is when you're not doing (the mission) is you're staying home and really preserving yourself," Ligon said.

The tactics have largely worked, said Ray, the four-star commander. Few of his charges have tested positive, though he won't say how many.

The hope is his forces are never needed to complete their missions. But they are ready, Ray said.

"You pay us to do this under all conditions, and the force that you have trained and prepared is operating brilliantly," Ray said.

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