WASHINGTON: The Air Force faces a crisis of leadership, a crisis of confidence, a crisis that must be addressed by whomever is nominated as the next secretary. The service is being battered by news story after news story.
Today we learned of the suspension of 17 nuclear launch officers.
The Associated Press broke the story. And they got their hands on an email from the Minot missile commander. “We are, in fact, in a crisis right now,” the commander, Lt. Col. Jay Folds, wrote in an internal email obtained by The Associated Press and confirmed by the Air Force.
Add to that the Sunday arrest for sexual misconduct of the Air Force officer charged with preventing sexual assault and the service’s widely perceived institutional weakness when it comes to defining its mission and the service clearly faces a major crisis.
President Barack Obama and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel made statements that clearly indicated just how angry and frustrated they are by the sexual assault news.
Senior lawmakers expressed their anguish and concern today about the nuclear force problems. When outgoing Air Force Secretary Mike Donley told Sen. Dick Durbin, chairman of the Senate Appropriations defense subcommittee, that, “one thing we have to remember is these are lieutenants…,” the senator’s reaction left little doubt as to what he thought of this explanation.
“It is cold comfort to hear these are lieutenants who may be new to the job,” the new chairman of the defense subcommittee replied. Durbin told the blue suiters that, “this news report could not be more troubling.” It, he said, “strikes at the core of our chain of command.” Later in the hearing, Durbin noted that, one officer acted in a manner that “could have compromised the secret codes of missiles.” No codes were compromised, he made clear. But you get the idea.
Donley, in a message meant as much for our allies, Russia, China and North Korea as anyone else, told the subcommittee that the US is “able to maintain a safe and credible nuclear deterrent.”
He also said that the Air Force has, “made substantial progress, I think, in restoring the confidence in the nuclear enterprise.” A former senior Air Force officer agreed with Donley’s assessment and said the service has, in fact, greatly improved the security and robustness of the Air Force nuclear enterprise since the 2007 Bent Spear incident when the service lost track of six nuclear warheads mounted on cruise missiles.
I reached out to a range of former Air Force officers and close observers of the force to see what they had to say.
“The bad — and slightly good — news is that this is not the first Air Force crisis of the past several years. A worrisome trend is that each crisis sinks the perception of the Air Force further around Washington and makes it harder and longer to rebuild no matter who is at the top. It is a service that can recover but only with fresh, invigorated and empowered leadership,” Mackenzie Eaglen, defense analyst at the American enterprise Institute and member of the Breaking Media Board of Contributors, said. “Clearly, fixes in the recent past are not enough or have not been working. Air Force leaders will need to be seen as taking bold, unprecedented steps to regain confidence both within and outside of the service.”
Eaglen bets that “the new Secretary of Defense is watching closely to see if he will need to make an example out of Air Force leadership yet again. So its leaders, both sitting and incoming, should be on full notice. They have very little time to show tangible change and progress across a variety of areas.”
What was the reaction of the service’s senior uniformed leader, Gen. Mark Welsh, to the sex assault scandal, in particular: “I’ve been doing this for 37 years and no one is more frustrated than I am, Chairman (of the full committee Barbara) Mikulski.”
We don’t know many details about the nuclear inspection. Most details about anything that involves nuclear operational details usually are highly classified. The Minot Air Force Base does appear to shed a little light on the issue with an announcement that a March inspection was “a success,” the same term Donley used before the the SASC subcommittee as he tried to explain that the problem might not be as bad as it sounded.
Here’s what the Minot base website says:
“From March 1-13, various Team Minot organizations were reviewed by the Air Force Global Strike Command Inspector General during the Consolidated Unit Inspection. The CUI is designed to test units on their policies and procedures regarding daily operations, record keeping and a variety of other operational facets. After the smoke cleared, the 5th Bomb Wing and 91st Missile Wing were left standing with overall ratings of ‘Excellent’ and ‘Satisfactory’ respectively.” As anyone who has spent much time with the military knows, getting a rating of satisfactory — especially for something as sensitive as a mission dealing with nuclear weapons — is not something to write home about.
The commander said his airmen were accepting violations of weapons safety rules and security protocols.
While they did receive that satisfactory rating overall, they received the equivalent of a D on one of the 22 tasks involving launch operations. They were rated marginal. That sparked the commander’s email and the suspension of the 17.
Loren Thompson, defense consultant and an analyst at the Lexington Institute, pointed to the suspension of the 17 officers as “a perverse sign of progress. It shows the Air Force is testing personnel rigorously and insisting on accountability.”
Thompson believes that the senior Air Force leadership is poor at communicating with the outside world.
“Air Force Chief of Staff Mark Welsh is exceptionally capable, perhaps the best service chief currently serving, but he has inherited an institution with uneven standards when it comes to leadership. Some of the recent political appointees have been weak, and the quality of general officers varies immensely,” said Thompson, a member of the Breaking Defense Board of Contributors. “This is the most accomplished Air Force in the world when it comes to waging war, but its political skills are not strong and its acquisition community seems accident prone. Such deficiencies bulk larger when threats recede, as seems to be the case today.”
We broke the story that a female with strong experience working with Congress and in industry is the leading candidate for nomination as Donely’s replacement. Debbie Lee James, executive vice president for communications and government affairs at defense and intelligence giant SAIC, could improve the service’s standing on sexual assault issues just by being there — at first. Someone with her experience might just be the right move for a service in need of some.