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Air Force Secretary proposes changes to missile force

Servicemembers sit inside a nuclear launch control simulator at F.E. Warren Air Force Base used to train missile officers. The simulator is a mockup of a real launch control center.

WASHINGTON — Air Force Secretary Deborah James has outlined a series of changes she wants implemented to fix what she called a “systemic problem” in the nation’s intercontinental ballistic missile force.

During a speech at an Air Force Association breakfast Wednesday in Arlington, Va., James laid out recommendations about how the Air Force could improve its nuclear enterprise, including changing the culture within the ICBM force, modifying launch officer evaluation criteria, spending more money to improve quality of life for missileers, and punishing those who don’t live up to the service’s ethical standards.

James came up with these recommendations following discussions with airmen during her recent visit to all three of the Air Force’s ICBM bases. James made the trip in the wake of revelations this month that missile launch officers cheated on monthly proficiency exams and others were implicated in an illegal narcotics investigation.

At each location, James was briefed by wing commanders and participated in town halls with servicemembers, but she also conducted small focus groups with launch officers and enlisted personnel from which senior officers were excluded.

Based on what she heard during those meetings, she said the command climate within the missile wings needs to change.

“The need for perfection has created way too much stress and way too much fear about the future. I heard repeatedly, especially in the focus groups, that the system feels very punitive. It doesn’t feel that you’re incentivized for good but rather you’re punished merely if anything bad should happen,” James said. “I’ve also heard repeatedly that there’s a level of micromanagement within this force.”

She said more money needs to be spent on personnel who man the ICBM force because servicemembers at the missile wings view Defense Department leaders as officials who merely pay lip service to them.

“I also heard repeatedly that the airmen hear that the mission is important but we don’t necessarily put our money or out attention where our mouth is [and] there’s a difference between what we say and what they feel that we do,” James said. “We need to put our money where our mouth is. So this is everything from perhaps we should have additional funding for manning levels to get them up, perhaps [we should spend more on] military construction, [because] I saw some leaking roofs; things of this nature. There might be some quality of life things [where we can] redirect some of our investments for this force.

“We need to examine the incentives, the accolades, the recognition that is available to the nuclear force,” she said. “This gets into the realm of should we consider some sort of incentive pay or, you know, scholarships for certain types of work [or] should we [award] a medal or a ribbon. So we need to look at all of that.”

James said the performance grading and promotion system for launch officers is fundamentally flawed and needs to be more comprehensive.

“In the current environment, there’s no room for error — no room for error all of the time. And yet when you’re talking about training, the idea of training is learning and mistakes happen and you get better. That’s what training is all about. But in this environment it sounded to me like everything was a test and that perfect test scores had become an important gauge — in some cases I heard the only gauge — allowing commanders to differentiate [among the launch officers],” she said. “This is wrong. We need to address this. And I think rather than making a 110 percent test be the make-it-or-break-it for these young people and the future of their careers, I think we need to look at a whole person concept [and] the totality of what they’re doing with a test being an element [but] not a make-it-or-break-it element all the time.”

James suggested that commanders need to be punished for the cheating scandal.

“We clearly have to have accountability at all levels,” she said. “For those involved — some of whom actually cheated, some of whom knew about it but didn’t stop it — there needs to be accountability, and there will be. But we’re also looking at the leadership.”

“Part of what’s going on now is we’re doing this commander investigation. So [the Office of Special Investigations] will turn over their information to the team … At the end of that, we’ll make recommendations on any personnel actions. We’re looking at everything from Squadron, Group, Wing and numbered Air Force levels,” Lt. Gen. Stephen Wilson, the Commander of Global Strike Command, said Thursday.

James wants the Air Force to encourage missileers to inform on their peers anonymously so that they won’t be seen as ratting out their comrades who cheat.

“Airmen need to understand that being a good wingman does not mean protecting others who lack integrity. And of course airmen have a responsibility not only to act with integrity in their own actions, but also to report wrongdoing that they see going on. And somehow that got a bit lost here. So we need to … remind people that there are ways to report things both directly and through anonymous sources. I heard over and over again airmen don’t want to be perceived as reporting on their buddies,” she said.

On Thursday, James told reporters at the Pentagon that the number of officers implicated in the cheating scandal has increased to 92, all of whom are stationed at Malmstrom Air Force Base. All 92 have been temporarily decertified and can no longer stand watch. She said the investigation is nearing completion.

James also said the number of servicemembers within the nuclear enterprise who have been implicated in the drug probe has increased to 13.

Spurred by the recent scandals and poor performance and conduct among elements of the missile force, last week Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel ordered a 60-day review of the Defense Department’s nuclear enterprise that will focus on management, culture and personnel issues. Air Force leaders are expected to develop an action plan by the time the review is completed.

James will be a key player in the review, and she told reporters that all of the focus areas she outlined will be examined during the effort.

James met with Hagel and other leaders of the nuclear enterprise at the Pentagon Wednesday and shared her views on these issues, Pentagon Press Secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby told reporters.

“I think there was a general recognition that, yes, there are systemic issues and, yes, we need to start trying to solve them,” Kirby said.

Kirby said corrective measures will be enacted “in the coming weeks and months,” but it’s too early to tell what the action plan will include or when specific initiatives will take effect.

“The work has just begun … and I would be loathe right now to characterize what it’s going to look like. I suspect it certainly will have a list of tasks that they believe need to be accomplished or checked or maintained, and then some recommendations moving forward,” Kirby said. “But again we’re just — we’re just now starting on this.”

harper.jon@stripes.com
Twitter: @JHarperStripes

 

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