WASHINGTON — Five years ago the U.S. Air Force considered a series of proposals to boost morale and fix performance and security lapses in its nuclear missile corps, according to internal emails and documents obtained by The Associated Press.
But many fell short or died on the vine, and now, with the force again in crisis, it’s retracing those earlier steps.
The new effort is more far-reaching, on a tighter timetable and backed by Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel. So it appears to hold more promise for an Air Force under scrutiny after a variety of embarrassing setbacks and missteps raised questions about whether some of the world’s most fearsome weapons are being properly managed.
The earlier approach, shown in internal Air Force documents and emails from 2008-09, included some of the ideas being floated again today by a new set of Air Force leaders, including bonus pay and other incentives to make more attractive the work of the men and women who operate, maintain and secure an Air Force fleet of 450 Minuteman 3 nuclear-tipped missiles.
Then, as now, the Air Force also looked for ways to eliminate the most damaging “disincentives” — parts of the job that can make missile duty onerous.
“Keep the faith,” one commander wrote to his ICBM troops in an email in early 2009.
Faith, however, seemed to falter.
A series of AP reports last year documented training failures, low morale, deliberate violations of security rules, leadership lapses and other missteps. The AP also disclosed an unpublished study that found evidence of “burnout” and frustration among missile launch officers and ICBM security forces. In response, Hagel said something must be done promptly to restore public confidence in the nuclear force and ensure the weapons are under competent control.
Hagel came forward shortly after the disclosure of an Air Force drug investigation and an exam-cheating scandal within the ICBM force whose full dimensions are still being investigated. Hagel has given the Air Force wide latitude to find solutions to what he called “personnel failures,” but he wants action by late March.
In January, the new Air Force secretary, Deborah Lee James, visited all three ICBM missile bases. She picked up on people’s worries about career advancement opportunities in the force and wondered whether incentive pay, ribbons, medals and other recognition should be provided.
Hagel also has raised the possibility of incentives to make the ICBM career field more attractive, while noting that money is not the main motivator for most in the nuclear weapons field.
Col. Robert W. Stanley II, commander of the 341st Missile Wing, which operates 150 Minuteman 3 missiles at Malmstrom Air Force Base, Montana, said in a recent AP interview that incentives would be welcome. “We’ve been asking for that for a long, long time,” Stanley said.
The idea is that fattening paychecks might attract more people to the ICBM career field, while removing some of the mission’s burdens might stop people from leaving it the first chance they get.
But some who have studied military personnel issues say they doubt financial incentives would make much difference, pointing instead to more fundamental problems.
“If the missile force can’t convince its people that what they are doing is really important, that it isn’t a military and strategic backwater and/or obsolete, no combination of programmatic incentives can really fix things,” said Robert Goldich, who was a defence policy specialist for three decades at the Congressional Research Service.
In 2008 and 2009 the Air Force solicited ideas from young officers and enlisted airmen who perform the mission.
“We need you to tell us what needs to be fixed,” said the introductory page of a 2009 Air Force confidential survey of members of the ICBM, or intercontinental ballistic missile, force.
Similarly, Lt. Gen. Stephen Wilson recently launched a “force improvement program.” In a Jan. 31 letter to all members of the ICBM force, Wilson said he wants to improve the climate within the force and is looking for “innovative, concrete solutions” that can be acted on in coming weeks. Wilson took over in November as commander of Global Strike Command, in charge of all Air Force nuclear forces.
Wilson’s effort is the latest in a string.
Last summer, shortly before he was fired following an Air Force investigation of his alleged misbehaviour while on official business in Russia, Maj. Gen. Michael Carey developed what he called a “professional actions” campaign to relieve stress on the ICBM force. At the time Carey was top commander of the ICBM force.
Asked what specific solutions Carey had come up with, an Air Force spokeswoman, 1st Lt. Edith J. Sakura, said his campaign was a “communications slogan.” It is no longer in use, she said, “but the intent to improve the force remains the same.”
Sakura said Carey’s successor, Maj. Gen. Jack Weinstein, has recognized that in a force where a majority of officers and enlisted personnel are newcomers, “mentoring is crucial and needs formal rejuvenation” throughout the ICBM force. Weinstein also is acting to improve leader and professional development, she said.