Five years after USAF’s nuclear communities were united, more change is in the works—this time from the bottom up.
Air Force Global Strike Command stood up five years ago, on Aug. 7, 2009, in the wake of Air Force nuclear-mission problems that garnered national headlines. The command embarked on a series of reforms meant to reinvigorate USAF’s nuclear enterprise that many believed had been neglected and under-resourced in the decades since the end of the Cold War.
For the first time since 1992 (when its predecessor, Strategic Air Command, was inactivated) AFGSC consolidated under a single organization all of USAF’s nuclear systems—including Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles and the Air Force’s dual-capable bomber force.
But new issues have pushed USAF’s nuclear enterprise back onto the front pages recently. A series of startling lapses of discipline, culminating in an ICBM exam cheating scandal, exploded in January at Malmstrom AFB, Mont.
“This was a failure of some of our airmen,” Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James explained at a Jan. 15 Pentagon press conference, held alongside Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Welsh III. “It was not a failure of the nuclear mission,” she insisted. Since then, USAF leadership and Air Force Global Strike Command have worked rigorously to uncover the root issues underlying the lapses, ensure key investments pay off, and make some long-term changes to strengthen the “global strike culture,” as several officials said.
The news has served as an uncomfortable reminder of the events that led to USAF’s initial nuclear consolidation just a few years ago. The incident spurring the creation of AFGSC was the transfer of nuclear cruise missiles from Minot AFB, N.D., to Barksdale AFB, La., in August 2007. The missiles were not supposed to have nuclear warheads on them. They were loaded onto an aircraft and flown to Louisiana. It was only hours after they arrived at Barksdale that the mistake was discovered. Heads rolled; the incident led to the dismissal of the serving Chief of Staff and Secretary of the Air Force in June 2008.
Today, additional corporate changes are already in the works. James, speaking with reporters in June, declared the AFGSC commander should be a four-star general, and the head of the Air Staff’s nuclear directorate (A10) should be raised from a two-star to a lieutenant general. “Rank matters,” she said, and the extra star power would show that USAF is treating the nuclear mission as a core service competency.
Instead of the top-down scrutiny that followed the 2007 incident, however, AFGSC is largely responding to recent problems from the bottom up, with an initiative to put the tools for change in the hands of the airmen carrying out the mission.
Lt. Gen. Stephen W. “Seve” Wilson, AFGSC commander, said when the reports about Malmstrom first came to his attention, he called a nuclear community colleague for advice—Vice Adm. Michael J. Connor, who commands Submarine Forces. Wilson asked Connor if the Navy’s sub community had any similar experience with lapses. Connor told Wilson about a prior effort to address the safety culture in nuclear submarine crews—led by the sailors themselves. It proved successful because it tapped into the perspective of key leaders among enlisted and officers working in the community, who were closer to the problem.
The conversation led to USAF’s Force Improvement Program, or FIP, which began in February. Several teams from across the Air Force and Navy nuclear communities were assembled, consisting of “informal leaders” from among the enlisted and officer ranks, said Wilson. Five areas were scrutinized in the ICBM force: operations, security forces, mission support, maintenance, and helicopter operations. The FIP teams reported directly to Wilson at Barksdale.
“This was not an external look” at what was wrong, Wilson said in a May interview at his Barksdale headquarters. This was “by airmen, for airmen, … the lieutenants, the captains, the tech sergeants.” They were tasked to go out and “to identify the obstacles to their success.”
The effort stretched over months. It involved more than 1,800 surveys across the ICBM force’s 20th Air Force, including some 840 interviews of airmen, commanders, family members, and other personnel. The review produced nearly 350 recommendations by late May.
Lt. Col. Russell Williford, the FIP office director at AFGSC headquarters, who led the day-to-day effort, said some of the initial observations came from James’ immediate visits with the community when the cheating scandal emerged. They centered on the “cultural aspect” of the ICBM community—an environment driven by constant inspections—and a perception “that the human element has to be perfect, and that’s hard to achieve,” Williford said.
Some fixes are simple, he said, such as reducing micromanagement and giving more responsibility to the airmen performing their missions. One such fix was eliminating a “break safety report”—an extensive report required of security forces airmen about how they spent personal time. “That was micro down to the personal level, and it was an easy kill,” Williford said.
Other reforms are more complex, and AFGSC plans to roll these out over the next year. The career path for missileers, for example, is shifting to a tour modeled on those in the aviation community.
Instead of pulling a four-year initial launch control tour and then being extended to be a trainer or evaluator—often at the same wing—missileers will now serve three years of missile crew duty followed by three years transitioning to instructor or evaluator. The new construct is called Three Plus Three.
During the FIP, it was discovered that many ICBM operators’ experience levels were not commensurate with their time served, due to the heavy emphasis on testing.
If an officer did well on whatever test leaders valued, Williford said, he could easily get a coveted instructor billet within the first half of his tour. While a typical year’s worth of alerts would be about 96 or so, Williford noted, many crew were logging only 200 alerts in a full four-year tour. The new construct should create an incentive to become more proficient and experienced in ICBM operations—and sooner. “The mission is the focus, not a test,” he said.
Reformed tour lengths are now being implemented. To make the career field more attractive, ROTC scholarships for missileers are available again. Developmental training at the Vandenberg AFB, Calif., schoolhouse for ICBM crews is getting an overhaul to make it more “leadership- and empowerment-focused,” Wilson said.
At its core, FIP is attempting to close the “say-do gap” across AFGSC’s units. Nuclear missileers and aircrew believe in their missions, Williford noted, but some things they see cause them to wonder, “Is this really the No. 1 mission” in the Air Force? The FIP was meant to find ways to reassure people that the service is serious about the nuclear and global strike mission and will support and resource it accordingly.
The FIP provides a chance for the bomber community to question and validate its own culture and practices, said Maj. Gen. Scott A. Vander Hamm, commander of 8th Air Force, overseeing USAF’s nuclear-capable B-2 and B-52 bombers.
“We took a look at 20th Air Force, but we are following up” with a review of the bomber procedures, Vander Hamm said. “When we do find things—and I think we will because of the nature of the bottom-up approach—[airmen] will identify things, and we will put heat and light behind it.”
The reforms arrive just as AFGSC is modernizing and upgrading its legacy bomber force and exploring what its ICBM force will look like past 2030.
“For two legs of our triad, we spend about five percent of our budget. That’s one percent of our [defense] budget. I think that’s a pretty good value that provides strategic deterrence for our nation as well as assurance for our allies,” Wilson said.
While he and other Global Strike officials note low operating costs for USAF’s two nuclear legs, broad modernization of both is needed in the coming years to keep them credible. AFGSC’s Eisenhower-era B-52s and its 20 stealthy B-2s are both being upgraded, with emphasis on command and control tools.
“There is no global power without command and control. We are spending a lot of time on that,” Wilson said.
The B-52 is in the early stages of a fleetwide upgrade of avionics (the Combat Network Communications Technology, or CONECT, program). AFGSC has funding in place to improve 30 of its B-52Hs and plans to fit out the rest of the fleet eventually. The first CONECT-equipped jet aircraft arrived at Barksdale from Tinker AFB, Okla., in April, and flight testing resumed at Barksdale during the summer.
The new avionics, software, and mission system upgrades make the famous bomber more lethal by turning it into a flying network node. This makes it even more effective for long-duration global power missions and improves its ability to operate on the edges of challenged, contested airspace.
“We have semi-jokingly called it the ‘giant iPhone’?” aircraft, Wilson said.
A B-52 with CONECT can now transmit targeting data and information to other aircraft securely to update battle plans and targets continuously through a sortie. This will have a strategic effect, Wilson said, allowing great flexibility for weapons upgrades—particularly standoff weapons, the BUFF’s future forte. The B-52 is receiving a new data bus to allow internal carriage of Joint Direct Attack Munitions, which previously could only be carried on wing pylons.
CONECT-equipped B-52s could employ Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missiles, air launched decoys, and air launched jammers, creating a “formidable challenge” to an advanced adversary, even operating from well outside an enemy’s air defenses, Wilson said.
The B-2 stealth bomber fleet also has a new tool to ensure worldwide connectivity: the High Performance Waveform (HPW). Previously, a B-2’s radio connectivity was limited by a satellite’s field of view, typically tied to a particular combatant command. Eighth Air Force would dispatch a comms team to air operations centers around the world to ensure continuous communications on global missions.
Prompted by an AFGSC challenge, two airmen came up with the new method to link the various regional networks together and route them back to the 608th Air and Space Operations Center at Barksdale.
A few months before the headline-grabbing flight of two B-2s from the US to the Korean Peninsula during Exercise Foal Eagle in March 2013, Wilson said AFGSC tested the capability in the Pacific. This test helped assure the 608th AOC kept continuous contact during the high-profile, 38-hour mission.
“Often we make [this sort of thing] look easy, when in fact it is really hard,” Wilson said, explaining that weather interferes, tankers must be rerouted, and intelligence changes. The ability to command and control B-2s anywhere on the planet from 8th Air Force’s nerve center is critical.
The Minuteman III mission, meanwhile, is getting primary attention to improve its sustainment and rethink how airmen in the missile fields are equipped. ICBMs are not maintained the way USAF maintains its aircraft—something Global Strike Command wants to fix with a program called ICBM Normalization.
When ICBMs first deployed in the force during the Cold War, maintenance largely centered on missile wings. “Sustainment isn’t done that way anymore,” said Lawrence S. Kingsley, AFGSC’s director of logistics, installations, and mission support. ICBMs were largely forgotten in the shift to a more centralized sustainment system.
Part of the reason is definition. USAF regulations designate the mission of a Minuteman III as including only the missile itself—not the associated launch center, avionics, cables, or other components of the ICBM system. “We began taking this on about a year ago, and it’s hard,” Kingsley said. An ICBM is not a flying system, so many funding and program practices designed for aircraft don’t make a ready fit.
For example, “we can’t fund on flying hours,” he said. One of the goals is defining what is included in the ICBM weapon system so the Air Force can fund it and build a sustainable program depot maintenance cycle.
In Fiscal 2015, Kingsley said, ICBM sustainment funding will be consolidated and managed by AFGSC headquarters, as a first step to reforming it in conjunction with Air Force Materiel Command and the Air Staff. “For the first time it addresses systemically the challenges the community lives with,” he stated.
An Evolutionary Merge
Defining the ICBM as a system should also improve modernization, as it will help AFGSC narrow requirements for the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD), the designated replacement for the Minuteman III.
Brig. Gen. Ferdinand B. “Fred” Stoss, AFGSC’s director of plans and programs, noted the command is already on the “front edge” of the program set to begin replacing guidance systems in Fiscal 2015. The challenging part is to change out the system incrementally in place. The guidance sets, fuses, and eventually new solid rocket motors must all be transferrable from today’s Minuteman III to whatever replaces it after 2030.
GBSD “is not one individual thing,” Stoss said, echoing Kingsley. An analysis of alternatives was wrapping up in June to chart a path for how to modernize the whole weapons system. Some components in the Minuteman will be replaced; others won’t be. “This will be complementary to the ‘normalization’ of ICBM sustainment,” Stoss said.
Model Defender is another new push, scrutinizing how security forces must be equipped for future nuclear missile field operations. On the agenda for the SF airmen who make up the analysis team are items such as camouflage patterns appropriate for the plains of Montana and Wyoming, vehicles better suited for the nuclear mission, and weapons, armor, and kit.
USAF already allocated funding for such equipment in Fiscal 2014 and is defining where it will make steady investment in the SF mission over the coming years.
The FIP has also prompted some hard questions across USAF’s global strike community about integrating bomber and missile forces.
At just five years old, “the command is still relatively new,” said Brig. Gen. Michael E. Fortney, AFGSC’s director of operations. Some cultural ties still need to be fostered among the command’s tribes.
The missile career field, when it joined AFGSC, was severed from Air Force Space Command, and some of the career and developmental roadblocks that have since arisen can be traced to this split.
“In the past, there was a lot of flow between space and nukes,” Fortney said, and a lot of those ties were cut. “We probably didn’t do the best job in the world rolling that out to the crew force.” Effort will now be applied to retooling the career “pyramid” for missile crews, to show what options they have in the wider Air Force.
“Part of that merge has been evolutionary,” Fortney said. “It was one thing to bring [bombers and missiles] together in one command,” he explained, but “now figuring out what we can learn from each other is the next step. [The] FIP will go a long way to addressing that.”
Wilson and other senior leaders reject the notion that missileers have limited opportunities in the Air Force. Today, Wilson said, there are 12 general officers from the ICBM community. There are leadership opportunities across three wings and command jobs at US Strategic Command, at AFGSC, and elsewhere. “But we have not done a very good job, institutionally, for our Air Force so all members of [USAF] understand the nuclear piece of our Air Force.”
As a result of the FIP, the command has seen that it can do better as far as talking between the two numbered air forces, Fortney said. In June, he brought the commanders of all the operations groups from 8th and 20th Air Force together at Barksdale. While some “flying side” practices are being adapted to the ICBM community, Fortney believes both can learn from each other. Missile crews, for example, were among the FIP teams visiting 8th Air Force bomber units this summer.
The capability and speed of long-range standoff weapons has also sparked innovation at 8th Air Force. A new planning cell at the 608th AOC helps coordinate them across the Department of Defense now, Vander Hamm said. The SMAC, the Standoff Munitions Application Center, was up and running in May. As commander of 8th Air Force and component commander for global strike for STRATCOM, Vander Hamm can now coordinate and support standoff weapons operations from the 608th AOC, bringing together experts from both USAF and the Navy.
These assets are “very expensive,” and this helps to pull them together from an operational planning perspective, Vander Hamm said. The SMAC looks at the holistic effect generated by cruise missiles and can adjust targets and tools as needed, from electronic warfare to cyber and space tools, to “better optimize” strikes, he said.
As it adapts its culture, AFGSC is invigorating its airmen and leaders to think more critically about nuclear and conventional deterrence and assurance. In December, the command conducted Strategic Vigilance, a four-day war game designed to explore Global Strike Command’s ability to carry out operations across the stages of nuclear conflict. Tomorrow’s global strike airmen, AFGSC leaders say, must adjust to a world where emerging nuclear powers may think differently about threat and use of nuclear weapons.
Christopher T. Yeaw, AFGSC’s chief scientist, is involved with many aspects of formulating war games and also teaches Nuclear 400—a capstone-level course for senior leaders that hones nuclear thinking among decision-makers.
“This is a course to raise their sights,” Yeaw said. Complicated matters of deterrence, assurance, and how escalation works in the real world are all part of the course. “We have to get into the mind of the ally and adversary and try to understand this phenomenon. We need to define what we are deterring and under what circumstances,” he said.
Building a culture takes time, but AFGSC leaders are optimistic about the future. It may be a sign of crumbling cultural barriers, Fortney commented, that he was the command’s first director of operations from the ICBM community. The fact that Lt. Gen. James M. Kowalski, AFGSC’s second commander, “brought an ICBM guy in to be his [director of operations] shows a desire to integrate,” Fortney said.
The changes AFGSC is undergoing hasn’t affected its abilities, its leaders said. “In the last 10 months, … I have been reaffirmed that we are capable of performing this mission,” Fortney said. “The challenges have not been challenges in readiness. … This is one ready and lethal fighting force.”