Air Force and Wind Turbines Collaboration Challenges

Navigating the Turbulent Intersection

The extensive subterranean nuclear missile silos of the Air Force are rarely disturbed, typically only encountering the occasional wandering cow or drifting spy balloon. However, the Air Force is currently seeking Congress’ assistance in addressing an unexpected threat: the proliferation of towering wind turbines, increasing in both number and size and gradually encroaching upon these sites.

These silos coexist within vast private farmlands alongside these turbines. While the nuclear launch facilities remain discreet, marked solely by antennae, a chain-link fence, and a colossal 110,000-ton (100,000-metric tonne) concrete silo blast door, the wind turbines stand hundreds of feet tall. Their long, sweeping blades, with components so substantial and lengthy that they overshadow the 18-wheeler flatbed trucks transporting them, pose a stark contrast.

As local populations and energy demands have expanded, so has the prevalence and dimensions of these turbines. This expansion proves advantageous for farmers and landowners, who can lease their land to support both military operations and wind power companies.

However, the growth in wind turbine installations is posing hazards for military helicopter crews. When an alarm sounds at a site, UH-1 Huey crews respond by flying in low and fast, often accompanied by security teams.

Staff Sgt. Chase Rose, a UH-1 Huey flight engineer at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana, highlighted the complexity of navigating around wind turbines. He emphasized their immense size and the danger posed by the turbines’ turbulence, making it a challenging situation for helicopter crews.

To mitigate these risks, the Air Force is urging Congress to pass legislation establishing a 2-nautical-mile buffer zone around each site. While this proposal garners support from wind energy advocates, they advise against a one-size-fits-all approach. With numerous underground silos scattered across states such as Nebraska, Colorado, North Dakota, Montana, and Wyoming, advocates stress the need for site-specific and mission-specific evaluations to ensure military readiness.

Jason Ryan, a spokesperson for the American Clean Power Association, collaborating with the Air Force and lawmakers on the buffer zone language, acknowledged the uniqueness of the nuclear missile silo mission. However, he cautioned against applying universal setbacks, emphasizing the necessity of tailored assessments for other Department of Defense missions and assets.

Jo Dee Black, a spokesperson for NorthWestern Energy, which operates some towers near Malmstrom’s launch sites, did not explicitly state the firm’s stance on the buffer zone but expressed continuous support for the crucial role Malmstrom Air Force Base plays in national security.

Black emphasized the enduring and fruitful history of collaboration between NorthWestern Energy and the U.S. Air Force, highlighting their joint efforts in advancing national security and delivering secure, dependable energy services.

The potential establishment of a setback is incorporated into the Senate version of the 2024 National Defense Authorization Act, with its absence in the House version necessitating negotiation during the conference.

According to the proposed legislation, existing towers would remain unaffected, unless a company opts to upgrade a current tower, increasing its height. This, however, poses a potential concern for air crews, as some modern turbines boast towering structures reaching up to 650 feet, nearly 200 meters—twice the height of the Statue of Liberty, as noted by Air Force Maj. Gen. Michael Lutton, overseeing all 450 missile silo sites. Additionally, certain turbines feature rotor diameters extending up to 367 feet (112 meters), equivalent to the distance from home plate to the left field pole at the Colorado Rockies’ baseball stadium.

Among the 450 sites, 46 face significant encroachment, defined by the Air Force as having over half of the routes to the launch site obstructed.

Acknowledging the challenging position, the Air Force recognizes the financial benefits farmers gain from turbine leases on their lands, a relationship spanning decades. The service aims to avoid appearing resistant to environmental energy alternatives while maintaining its commitment to supporting renewable energy endeavors, including wind turbines. Air Force Maj. Victoria Hight, a spokeswoman for F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming, affirmed this stance, emphasizing that encroaching turbines pose limitations on safe helicopter transit and nuclear security operations.

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