Then-StratCom chief Gen. John Hyten once told an Omaha crowd that he would “die trying or kill someone” to procure new helicopters for patrolling the nuclear missile fields of the western Great Plains.

It looks like the general can keep his weapon holstered.

The Air Force unveiled its new MH-139A helicopter during a ceremony Thursday at Duke Field, a military airport in Florida, and christened it the Grey Wolf. After years of delays, training and testing are slated to begin on the new aircraft, which will operate among about 440 Minuteman III missile silos in Wyoming, Montana, North Dakota, Colorado and western Nebraska.

Some will also be used in the Washington, D.C., area.

The helicopters will replace Vietnam-era UH-1N Huey aircraft, in use since 1970. The aircraft protect ground convoys that carry nuclear warheads among the widely scattered silos. They’re also on alert to respond quickly to security breaches at the silos.

The name comes from a species of wolf that is native to the northern Rocky Mountains, a territory that overlaps with the intercontinental ballistic missile fields.

“They hunt as a pack, they attack as one, they bring the force of many,” Gen. Timothy Ray, commander of the Air Force Global Strike Command, which oversees the ICBMs, said during Thursday’s ceremony. “That’s exactly how you need to approach the nuclear security mission.”

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That mission is ultimately the responsibility of U.S. Strategic Command, headquartered at Offutt Air Force Base. That’s why Hyten — who was elevated to vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff last month — lobbied for them throughout his three-year tenure as StratCom commander. So did his predecessor, Adm. Cecil Haney.

The Air Force has been looking to replace its 62 Hueys since the mid-2000s. That move gained steam four years ago, after the Hueys failed during a classified exercise. The helicopters weren’t able to cover long distances carrying heavy loads in hot weather.

“They don’t have the lift to get the amount of security forces to the scene,” Haney testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee in 2016. “In order to meet these kinds of requirements, we need a new helicopter.”

He described the need as “urgent.”

Congress launched a procurement program in 2017. Last year, Boeing won a $2.38 billion contract to build up to 84 aircraft for the Air Force. They are militarized versions of the company’s AW139, built “off the shelf” for what the Air Force has touted as a $1.7 billion savings over the original estimate.

The first aircraft, delivered this week, will be used for testing by a newly created Air Force detachment at Duke Field, said Maj. Anastasia Schmidt, a spokeswoman for the Global Strike Command.

The first operational Grey Wolves are expected to be delivered to Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana in 2021, she said, with units later being deployed at F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming and Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota.

StratCom issued a statement Friday saying it welcomed the arrival of the first Grey Wolf for testing.

“The naming of the MH-139 Grey Wolf and arrival at Duke Field, Florida, is an important milestone for U.S. Strategic Command and our nation’s security,” Maj. Kate Atanasoff, a StratCom spokeswoman, said.

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