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Air Force bases see threat in nuke treaty

JUDITH GAP, Mont. —Here in America's nuclear heartland, where underground missile silos dot the landscape, a proposed U.S.-Russia treaty to reduce nuclear weapons is nothing short of alarming.

The military workers who maintain those missiles support cities as large as Great Falls, where 40 percent of the economy depends upon Malmstrom Air Force Base, and businesses as small as the Judith Gap Mercantile, where passing airmen buy milkshakes. If they follow the missiles out of town, the economies here could be crippled.

The fate of the 450 intercontinental ballistic missiles around Malmstrom, F.E. Warren Air Force Base near Cheyenne, Wyo., and Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota is not yet clear, but politicians and community leaders are ready to fight to keep them. Even if it means not cutting nuclear weapons.

"I would keep Malmstrom at full strength, regardless," Great Falls Mayor Michael Winters said. "Each and every facet of our economy has something to do with Malmstrom."

Montana, North Dakota and Wyoming business leaders over the past year have lobbied their congressional delegations, all the while avoiding arguments about whose base is more important, said Dale Steenbergen, president and CEO of the Greater Cheyenne Chamber of Commerce.

Instead, they are trying to persuade Congress to keep the ICBM silos at full strength, arguing that they are relatively cheap to maintain and are more secure compared to bombers and submarines that also carry nuclear weapons.

"You can sink a sub or shoot down a plane. That's very different from attacking American soil, and that's what you'd have to do (to get to the ICBM silos)," Steenbergen said.

The proposed treaty would require the U.S. and Russia to reduce their nuclear warheads over the next seven years by 30 percent, to 1,550 from a previous maximum of 2,200. But it doesn't say where those cuts would come.

That's expected to be detailed in the Defense Department's Nuclear Posture Review, a comprehensive strategic review of the U.S. nuclear force. The review could be released as early as next week , Pentagon spokesman Cmdr. Bob Mehal said.

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