BILLINGS- Montana’s 341st Missile Wing at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Great Falls is responsible for 150 launch facilities across Montana.
It’s a historic and complex program with national security interest, and some are suspecting it’s the reason a Chinese surveillance balloon was seen floating above the state this week.
“I’d like to find an answer for why it's hanging over our area,” Lewistown lawmaker Dan Bartel said Friday.
Bartel is a state senator representing a district in Fergus County, an area with some of Malmstrom’s missile sites.
The Department of Defense has referenced these critical zones in its media briefings on the balloon in recent days. Meanwhile, the Department of Defense has been making plans for a massive overhaul of the nuclear missiles scattered across the state.
The upgrades are something Bartel is familiar with because 50 of those missile locations are in Fergus County.
He says the upgrades were set to start in 2025. Now that’s been pushed back, and talks about upgrades with the Air Force suddenly became radio silent.
“We’ve been told that the project has been pushed out. It’s been pushed out two years,” he said. “They are having some redesign issues with the missiles themselves.”
The sites are spread across a 13,800-square-mile missile field that covers parts of eight counties: Cascade, Chouteau, Fergus, Judith Basin, Lewis and Clark, Meagher, Teton and Wheatland.
The project will replace the aging Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile system.
“The missiles have been around since the '60s so now they are being upgraded to the new technology,” said Bartel.
It includes the complete renovation of all 450 existing missile launch facilities, and the construction of two dozen new missile alert facilities all over the northwest, including Malmstrom Air Force Base, Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota, and F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming.
Bartel says the presence of the military in town has been a big boom for the local economy and helped maintain county roads.
But when the construction starts for the missile upgrades, the town will grow even more.
"First estimates are there would be about 1,500 new people during construction moving in and around these missile areas,” he said.
Bartel said he hopes they can put permanent infrastructure in place for the Lewistown workforce hub so that after work is completed, it can be converted for community uses – whether housing or something else.
But as for the suspicious Chinese balloon, Bartel and others want answers.