PENTAGON: Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James spent most of last week talking with the officers and enlisted men who control and protect America’s nuclear missiles. She told reporters today she believes the service’s nuclear missile force — hit by drugs, a cheating scandal that now embroils 92 officers, and several other recent mishaps — is beset by a culture of “undue fear.” Officers cheated on a nuclear proficiency test because they believed getting a score below 100 would ruin their chances for promotion. She said the command climate at Montana’s Malmstrom Air Force Base was clearly part of the problem, though she was careful not to single out any particular commander.
Very tellingly, James admitted that the troops don’t really hear much from senior commanders or the civilian leadership of the Pentagon about the nuclear mission. This has been an increasing problem as the relevancy of the nuclear force seems less obvious to many in the public and in the military. The days when movies glorified the mission of the bomber and missile crews standing watch against the threat of the Soviet Union are long gone. “I also heard that although we, as senior leaders, talk about the importance of the mission that the team in the field doesn’t always see that talk backed up by concrete action,” James said during her press conference. The missileers and the enlisted men who maintain and protect the missiles and their warheads also complained to her about micro-management by commanders.
Malmstrom has only 190 missileers, so the scandal has led to the decertification of more than half the force, requiring the Air Force to increase the number of alert shifts the two-man crews spend in the missile silos and to shift personnel from other sites.
The general in charge of the Air Force’s nuclear missiles and bombers, Lt. Gen. Stephen Wilson, told us the remaining missileers now are standing 10 alerts each month, up from eight, and they are bringing personnel from the 20th Air Force to help with training and running the simulations personnel must go through.
James and Wilson were at pains to reassure the American public — and our allies — that the weapons and the men and women who fire them, maintain them and protect them remain safe, effective and ready.
“We are confident in the security of our nuclear mission,” James said. She noted that Adm. Cecil Haney, who leads the nation’s nuclear weapon force as the head of Strategic Command, and she had told Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel yesterday that the nuclear force remains highly trained and ready.
To ensure things stay that way, James said she will regularly update Hagel and the public on efforts to improve the command climate, morale and commitment to core values such as honesty and responsibility at the three nuclear missile bases.
Wilson mentioned that Lt. Gen. Mike Holmes, vice commander at Air Education and Training Command, will look at how the nuclear force is trained and tested to ensure it’s done with the proper mix of awards, rigor and effectiveness. He will produce a report in 30 days. The Air Force has also assembled small working groups of junior officers charged with finding challenges and solutions. Wilson said they will have a first cut ready by the end of February.
While much of the Air Force’s reforms will center on improving the career paths and reward system for missileers, who don’t fit easily into an Air Force culture divided largely between pilots and space specialists, James also signaled that more money may be forthcoming to improve maintenance, because “equipment is not fully maintained.”
Expect more medals, awards, a clearer career path and bonuses for high-performing misileers, James made clear. And she wants to make sure the wing man culture, where airmen protect each other, does not become subverted into covering up bad behavior. For example, many of the 92 officers were decertified because they knew about the cheating but did not report it.
“We are going to get to the bottom of this,” said a calm but resolute Air Force secretary.