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START exercise preps Vandenberg for inspectors' visit

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- Tech. Sgt. Scott Strieby calls out the length measurement of a Minuteman III transporter/erector as part of a Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty exercise June 11.  The test facility intergration manager with the 1st Air and Space Test Squadron used the hanging weight as a guide to find the length of the missile vehicle.  (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Stephen Cadette)

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- Tech. Sgt. Scott Strieby calls out the length measurement of a Minuteman III transporter/erector as part of a Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty exercise July 11. The test facility intergration manager with the 1st Air and Space Test Squadron used the hanging weight as a guide to find the length of the missile vehicle. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Stephen Cadette)

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- Airmen who will escort representatives of the Stategic Arms Reduction Treaty listen on June 11 as Butch Price explains what the Russian investigators will be looking for during their inspection.  The inactive Minuteman III launch vehicle is a training tool for missile maintainers who assist during START inspections.  (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Stephen Cadette)

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- Airmen who will escort representatives of the Stategic Arms Reduction Treaty listen on July 11 as Butch Price, 30th Space Wing Plans Treaty office, explains what the Russian investigators will be looking for during their inspection. The inactive Minuteman III launch vehicle is a training tool for missile maintainers who assist during START inspections. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Stephen Cadette)

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- Tech. Sgts. Ronald Evans and Jose Dorado measure the length of an inactive Peacekeeper launch vehicle July 11 as part of a Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty exercise.  The Airmen from the 1st Air and Space Test Squadron participated in the exercise which prepared facility managers, escorts and a START Support Staff for the arms reduction inspections.  (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Stephen Cadette)

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- Tech. Sgts. Ronald Evans and Jose Dorado measure the length of an inactive Peacekeeper launch vehicle July 11 as part of a Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty exercise. The Airmen from the 1st Air and Space Test Squadron participated in the exercise which prepared facility managers, escorts and a START Support Staff for the arms reduction inspections. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Stephen Cadette)

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- Launch Facility 5 rests high on a plain on North Base overlooking many miles of Vandenberg's coastline. At one time, it was an active Peacekeeper missile silo. Now, three missile maintainers are working on the silo's surface, participating in an exercise of international proportions. And they are having a problem.

They're using a hydraulic pusher to move the 10-ton octagonal concrete and steel door above the silo far enough over to the side so that someone can look down into the tube. But it won't budge.

To make matters worse, twenty Airmen watch them from the rail overlooking the silo. Waiting for an event that was supposed to happen twenty minutes ago, they are bored, standing in the late afternoon sun.

It was the last step of a long day, the final phase of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or START, exercise that began at 3 a.m. July 11 when Thomas Hom, 30th Space Wing Plans Programs and Requirements specialist, shot the message heard 'round the base.

The Russians were coming.

The START treaties are the joint U.S., Russian Federation, Republic of Kazakstan, Republic of Belavus and Ukraine agreements concerning nuclear weapons reduction. The START agreements aim to reduce the number of delivery vehicles and warheads over several years.

Vandenberg is the only test range in the United States declared under START, since the Minuteman II, III and the decommissioned Peacekeepers have been tested here. When the inspectors come to Vandenberg, they visit 12 inspectable sites and any silo test launcher they are told does not contain any of these missiles. They'll surely want to peer down inside to double check there aren't any START accountable missiles down there. That's the reason missile maintainer Staff Sgt. Rodney Bobo, 576th Flight Test Squadron and his three-man team won't stop until they get the door moved.

"Vandenberg requires a full-time effort for whenever the START team comes," Mr. Hom said. This exercise finishes his training so he can fill in for Butch Price and Bruce MacIntyre of the 30th Space Wing Plans Treaty office. Mr. Price played the multi-hatted role of START inspector and U.S. Defense Threat Reduction Agency representative. At the end of the day, Mr. Hom and Mr. Price will have logged in 15 hours.

For the escorts, except for an early morning phone call, their nine-hour day began at 8 a.m. in the Vandenberg Center auditorium for a pre-inspection brief. 30th Space Wing Commander Col. Steve Tanous gave a quick speech, and then Mr. Price introduced his team. As he did, he directed the order of events and explained their purpose to the two dozen or so people in the group.

He said the 10-person START team may, at any point during the inspection, split up and head in up to five different directions as groups of two. To accommodate them, Vandenberg needs 20 people on call at any given time for when the Russian START team arrives.

Odd may describe some of the older sites the escorts saw. One was a Peacekeeper launch pad that hasn't been used in decades; now it appears to be nothing more than a fenced in parking lot, with tall weeds growing from cracks in the concrete. But if inspectors decide they want to view it, they must be given access, because the site was listed in the START treaty.

While the escorts toured the sites, facility managers were standing by using walkie-talkies to communicate with escorts who announced where they are and where they are going next. The digital radios are new, and the exercise gave participants the chance to work out kinks.

"That's why we do exercises," Mr. Price said.

Back in the Vandenberg Center, a START Support Staff, or SSS, assembled at the start of the exercise to "make sure the inspection goes without a hitch," said Master Sgt. Brown, the SSS director. The staff represents mission support agencies like the 30th Security Forces Squadron and the 30th Logistics Readiness Squadron, as well as the launch facility owners like the 576th Flight Test Squadron and the 1st ASTS.

Because the Russians can decide to visit a site on a moment's notice, the facility managers would be put on 24-hour standby at the sites, ready for the inspectors when they arrive. At the Russians' requests, they measure inspectable items and open doors to any area big enough to store an inspectable object such as vehicle first stages and transporter/erector systems for intercontinental ballistic missiles. 

Vandenberg expects to maintain its perfect track record when it hosts the Russian inspectors, Mr. Price said.

"There haven't been any violations at any installation so far," he said with a grin.

Now if they could only get that door open.

The hydraulic pusher unit whined, and the grip of months of dirt and years of rust finally gave way with the popping sound of an opening jar.   Acting as a Russian inspector and wearing the four-point safety harness, 1st Lt. Joe Wright, 30th Launch Support Squadron, leaned over the edge of the silo. He peered down into the 90-plus-foot silo using a heavy-duty flashlight . But the light flickered and went out.

"The battery died," Sergeant Bobo said. "Let me get another out of the truck."

Just another kink to work out. 

As Mr. Price said, that's why there are exercises. Satisfied with the view down the top of Launch Facility 5, Lieutenant Wright steps back from the edge. This site is prepared for inspection.