(From left) Airman 1st Class Michael Fenex, 341st Security Forces Squadron response force leader, Senior Airman Collin Kleckley, 341st SFS member, and Senior Airman Brainard Moore, 341st Missile Security Force. (Airman 1st Class Katrina Heikkinen / Air Force)
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There's no room for error in the nukes community — the pressure can be brutal.
And for 480 airmen from seven bases, the past five months have been even more intense than usual as they vied for the top spot in the Global Strike Challenge.
The challenge, in its third year, pits airmen against airmen for bragging rights as the best bomber, missile and security forces crews handling the nation's nuclear enterprise — the Air Force's No. 1 priority.
The airmen are selected for teams by their commands to perform a series of challenges that show no matter how stressful the situation, they excel at their jobs.
"This is too important a mission, we've invested too much in all these guys. … We need people that are the best of the best," said Lt. Col. Michael Petrosh, the lead planner for the challenge.
Beginning in June, bomber and missile crews and security forces members from bases across Global Strike Command, along with B-1B Lancer crews from Dyess Air Force Base, Texas, competed in missions to determine which command was best. Bomber challenges included simulated missions and weapons loading. ICBM crews participated in challenges such as simulated launches and maintaining communications systems.
Commanders and evaluations place a premium on staying calm during the challenges. Airmen train every day for war, but they don't get many chances to act out that training in a simulated war scenario, said Capt. Brian Marlow, a missile officer with the 341st Operations Support Squadron at Malmstrom Air Force Base, Mont.
Bomber crews were able to work in a realistic tactical scenario, study rules of engagement and operate under an emergency war scenario, said Capt. Patrick Applegate, a B-52 navigator with the 20th Bomb Squadron at Barksdale Air Force Base, La.
Security forces came together in early November at Barksdale for a series of challenges to test their ability to best keep the nation's nuclear assets safe. Commanders selected their best airmen, with an emphasis on physical training and marksmanship.
"We have tons of people who can do the job extremely well, but it came down to guys that do the job and keep a level head and be professional," said Tech. Sgt. Lilgjay Webb, flight chief with the 509th Security Forces Squadron at Whiteman Air Force Base, Mo.
Airmen who participate, even if they don't win, take the realistic training and the experience back to their bases to share with other security forces airmen who did not make the trip.
"Primarily, what we got out of this is we get to practice skills we should be practicing more anyway," said 1st Lt. Kendall Benton, security forces officer with the 2nd Security Forces Squadron at Barksdale. "We get to really hone those skills and become experts."
Selections for the team happen in early summer, and it's competitive. Global Strike airmen train all year to make a team, said 2nd Lt. Anthony Loden, security forces officer with the 509th Security Forces Squadron at Whiteman.
Security forces tests include marksmanship, obstacle courses and tactical operations.
While bomber and missile crews have been competing since 1951 and 1967, respectively, the Global Strike Challenge has only been around for the past three years, since the Air Force combined B-2s, B-52s and intercontinental ballistic missiles under Global Strike. When the command stood up, it immediately began work on the challenge.
Top leaders also learn from the challenge, Petrosh said, in that they are able to meet counterparts in other directorates that they will be able to work with during an emergency. Because Global Strike has only been around since 2009, the command does not have the institutional knowledge that other commands do, he said.
"Should we ever have to do our mission in a crisis, your staff knows how to work together," he said. "We had to get to know each other really quickly to pull something off."