Citizen airmen, they’re called. Members of the Air National Guard. Some have day jobs as airline pilots, police officers or construction workers.
Those with the 131st Bomb Wing at Whiteman Air Force Base made history this month. They’re the first citizen airmen certified to drop nuclear bombs.
Don’t panic: Nothing’s been ordered, and the U.S. Air Force is still around to do the heavy lifting in a doomsday scenario.
But having passed the Pentagon’s stringent Initial Nuclear Surety Inspection, the Missouri Guard unit proved itself ready to assist in delivering that ultimate weapon, the Bomb, if need-be.
“They’re very proud of what they’ve done,” said Col. Mike Francis, the wing’s commander.
As much as it reflects on the training and skills of the 131st Bomb Wing, the achievement also reflects the nation’s growing reliance on warriors outside the active-duty military to help carry out the most critical of combat missions.
The wing’s certification by the Air Force Global Strike Force Command enables more than 700 Guardsmen, working alongside active-duty airmen, to load nukes into B-2 Spirit stealth bombers and fly them on the orders of the U.S. president.
The Whiteman base near Knob Noster, Mo. — 60 miles east of Kansas City — has been home to the B-2 for 20 years. America’s way of waging war has changed a lot in that time.
Increased combat duties have been placed on citizen troops of the National Guard and reserves to the point that “we’ve been using them with almost the intensity that we’re using active-duty troops,” said University of Maryland sociologist David R. Segal.
“The military has transformed the reserve components from being a strategic reserve to an operational reserve,” said Segal, co-author of “The Postmodern Military: Armed Forces after the Cold War.”
He added: “The original blueprint of the all-volunteer force was that if we got to where we are now,” tapping citizen warriors for combat missions, “we would go back to conscription.”
But at Whiteman, the partnering of the Guard’s 131st wing with the Air Force’s 509th Bomb Wing — the active-duty caretakers of the B-2 — makes sense and benefits both groups, said Francis of the Guard.
Many in the Guard once served in active duty, and more than 200 of them are employed as civilians, full time, at Whiteman.
“We’ve hired some of the best the 509th ever had,” Francis said. “If someone in the 509th is looking to get out of the Air Force, having them in the Guard allows them to contribute to the mission in a different way.”
As part of what the Air Force calls Total Force Integration, seasoned pilots and longtime aircraft technicians of the Guard work side-by-side with fresh recruits of the 509th wing.
“When you walk on the flight line at Whiteman,” said Brig. Gen. Thomas Bussiere, who commands the 509th, “you can’t tell the difference between an active-duty or Guard pilot, maintainer or load crew team.”
For reasons of national security, the Air Force keeps secret the details of Global Strike Command’s process for certifying air units for nuclear missions. The inspection at Whiteman stretched over four days and covered years of training for the Guard wing.
“It’s a very demanding process, and it’s meant to be that way,” said Dick Cole, public affairs officer at the Pentagon’s Defense Threat Reduction Agency. The DTRA was formed in 1998 to help combat forces counter weapons of mass destruction.
Cole noted that a Malmstrom Air Force Base unit in Montana — overseeing a third of the nation’s land-based nuclear missiles — recently failed a Global Strike Command safety and security inspection. The missile wing that fumbled the test was active duty.
Passing inspection at Whiteman enabled the Guard members to become, according to a Missouri National Guard statement, certified “caretakers of an unrivaled combat power” in the “no-fail nuclear mission.”
They’ve already been tapped for conventional combat.
In March 2011, Missouri Air National Guardsmen assisted active-duty airmen flying three B-2s over Lybia. The mission to destroy Moammar Gadhafi’s aircraft shelters marked the first time an integrated crew of Guard and Air Force pilots flew the B-2 on a combat run.
The 131st Bomb Wing evolved from a St. Louis-based National Guard unit of F-15 fighter pilots and mechanics. After cost-saving realignments and base closures within the military, a few dozen members transferred to Whiteman in 2007 to kick the tires of the B-2.
“There were no desks for them here, no computer, no telephone. That’s where this started,” Francis said.
“They have built this thing, brick by brick, to be the first certified nuclear bomb wing in the history of the Air National Guard.”