Defense & National Security

Air Force addressing systemic problems in ICBM Force

Air Force addressing systemic problems in ICBM Force

WASHINGTON, Jan. 30, 2014 – After meeting with thousands of airmen in the ICBM community, Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James believes there is a systemic problem among missile launch officers.

James and Air Force Lt. Gen. Stephen W. Wilson, the commander of the Global Strike Command, briefed the press today as part of the on-going examination of this leg of the nuclear triad following revelations that missile launch officers had cheated on a test at Malmstrom Air Force Base, Mont.

The number of those implicated in the Malmstrom scandal has risen to 92, James said.

“I heard repeatedly from teammates that the need for perfection has created a climate of undue stress and fear,” James told reporters. I heard repeatedly that the system can be very punitive, come down very hard in the case of even small, minor issues that crop up, but not equally rewarding or incentivized for excellent behavior or good work.”

Personnel of all ranks complained to her about micro-management. “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,” she said.

Fixing the systemic issues will require a holistic approach, the secretary said, and that will be part of the plan she presents to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel in 60 days.

James had another observation that the ICBM force has lost the distinction between training and testing. It is also to make mistakes in training, she said. “The idea is to learn and do better,” she said.

But training tests have assumed an outsized importance, she said. “Although … a passing grade on these tests is 90 percent, the missileers are still driven to score 100 percent, all of the time,” she said. “This is because their commanders are using these test scores to be a top differentiator, if not the sole differentiator on who gets promoted.”

“I believe that a very terrible irony in this whole situation is that these missileers didn’t cheat to pass, they cheated because they felt driven to get 100 percent, getting 90 percent or 95 percent was considered a failure in their eyes,” she continued.

The secretary wondered whether missileers are receiving the right kind of leadership training. She and other Air Force leaders will examine this and include those recommendations in the report to the defense secretary.

This leads to a campaign to reinvigorate the service’s core values. “We’re going to go back to basics, and we’re going to remind people what that means,” she said. “We’re going to do this across the Air Force.”

The secretary will also look at “nuclear incentives, accolades and recognition.” If the ICBM mission is important, is the service rewarding those involved in it appropriately? The Air Force is working with the Navy and U.S. Strategic Command to share best practices on this subject.

Among the issues the service will study is whether to consider nuclear duty incentive pay and whether to award ribbons and medals for participation in this career field.

“This pertains very much to the enlisted team, as well as to the officer team, because they’re working very hard every day as well,” James said.

Finally it comes down to money. Nuclear facilities are aging, units are undermanned, James said. If the mission is so important, shouldn’t it be funded better, she asked?

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