Missileers are cautiously optimistic the latest plan to reinvigorate the nuclear force will have lasting effects—but after being dubbed the “problem child of the Air Force” by numerous reviews and panels over the years, many say they are waiting to see what the future will really hold.
The Air Force launched the Force Improvement Program in February 2014 after an internal investigation uncovered widespread cheating on a nuclear proficiency exam at Malmstrom AFB, Mont. The “unignorable moment,” as it’s sometimes referred to today, coincided with another scandal, involving allegations of drug abuse among a few missileers.
As part of FIP last year, the Air Force created five functional cultural working groups made up of lower-ranking airmen, junior and senior noncommissioned officers, as well as company grade officers from the following career fields: missile operations, security forces, maintenance, mission support, and helicopter operations.
The working groups were augmented by experts outside the ICBM field, such as Navy submariners, bomber combat systems officers, or members of the 576th Flight Test Squadron and 381st Training Group at Vandenberg AFB, Calif.
The teams visited all three missile wings at Malmstrom, F. E. Warren AFB, Wyo., and Minot AFB, N.D., where they conducted hundreds of interviews to determine what challenges exist for airmen in their respective mission areas. The group came up with more than 300 recommendations, which were pitched to senior Air Force leaders. Of those, 98 percent were approved. The recommendations fall into three main categories: inspections, leadership development, and the personnel reliability program. The changes have been steadily rolling out to the field ever since.
Last year, Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James authorized $160 million of FIP funding to improve things across the enterprise, including much-needed new vehicles for missileers, new uniforms and rifle scopes for security forces members, additional manning, new equipment necessary to maintain ICBMs, and quality of life improvements, such as new couches and desks.
Lt. Gen. Stephen W. “Seve” Wilson, commander of Air Force Global Strike Command, said the nuclear enterprise remains a top priority for Air Force and Defense Department leaders.
Wilson said he is confident FIP will live on even after the existing leadership rotates out because it is unlike anything the Air Force has ever tried before. The bottom-up, grassroots approach gives a voice to airmen who likely didn’t have one before. It’s meant to turn the ICBM culture of severe micromanagement and fear into one of empowerment for all airmen.
“This is a program owned by airmen,” said Wilson. “We have really good people. If we give them the right education, training, and experience, if we make sure they are confident and proud, [and] if we make sure they are personally and professionally fulfilled, we [get] mission success.”
Breaking The System
The Air Force nuclear enterprise has a long history, and under Strategic Air Command it flourished. But the fall of the Soviet Union and SAC’s inactivation in 1992 ushered in a lengthy period when—despite assertions to the contrary—the nuclear enterprise was not a high priority.
Still, missileers at all levels felt compelled to be perfect 100 percent of the time. The unrealistic pressures created by that environment plunged morale to an all-time low.
Lt. Col. Patrick Baum, commander of the 490th Missile Squadron at Malmstrom, told a story of growing up in the late 1990s as a young lieutenant under a system of severe micromanagement.
“I hated it. It drove me insane. It was like, why am I being treated like I’m seven years old? I’m a grown man. I’m an officer in the Air Force. Give me the responsibility and authority to do my job and I’ll do it—and I’ll do it well, and if I don’t, then hold me accountable,” said Baum.
It’s the same tale young lieutenants and captains across AFGSC told members of the FIP teams over and over again.
Col. Glenn E. Hillis, commander of the 341st Operations Group at Malmstrom, said the culture of perfection really intensified after a B-52 flew from Minot to Barksdale AFB, La., in August 2007 with six live AGM-129 nuclear missiles aboard, unbeknownst to anyone in the force.
Report after report that followed urged commanders to come up with a policy that would ensure it would never happen again.
In the years that followed, young officers were caught cheating and senior officers who led them were later relieved of command. Hillis said they “felt tremendous pressure” for perfection from their superiors, and they “did what [they] had to do to survive.”
“What FIP did, I think, is break the status quo,” said Baum. “It gave us the ability and authority to break the system, which it’s needed for years.”
A Stronger Voice
The officers who were brought in to pick up the pieces don’t believe in micromanagement. They strive every day to give airmen the authority they need to take back their jobs. And they are enjoying watching the airmen thrive as they embrace their new responsibilities.
In November 2014, then-Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced that AFGSC would soon be led by a four-star general, and a three-star general would oversee the Air Staff’s nuclear directorate. The announcement was part of sweeping changes to DOD’s overall nuclear enterprise.
In March, DOD announced that Gen. Robin Rand was nominated to become the first four-star leader of AFGSC. The promotion will give the commander of the world’s most powerful weapon system a stronger voice at the table and help make sure the nuclear enterprise stays on the Pentagon’s priority list.
However, there are still things that will always require perfection. For example, “we cannot lose a nuke. We have to be perfect with how we target these things. We have to be perfect, God forbid, if we ever have to launch them,” said Hillis.
But perfection is not necessary in a learning environment.
“There were cases here where people were getting letters of counseling or letters of admonishment because they weren’t making certain test scores or they weren’t doing things exactly right in a trainer, which is absolutely ridiculous,” he added.
Before FIP, the ICBM community trained to the test. “Testing used to be the foundation of everything,” said Col. John T. Wilcox II, 341st Missile Wing commander, at Malmstrom. Missileers technically needed a 90 percent to pass the monthly proficiency exam, but anything less than 100 percent affected their promotion chances.
Now the test is recorded as pass or fail, although the standards haven’t changed. Instead of a person’s performance report showing an average test score of 98.9 percent, it will evaluate that person based on his or her work in the field and how they do during simulator rides.
“If you train to a test, you lose peoples’ attention,” said Wilcox. “They want to know how the weapon system works” and the “deep complexity of the weapon system.”
The new ICBM training paradigm mimics the one used for aircrews. Instead of taking monthly recertification tests that focused on mundane parts of the job, missile crews now test quarterly. Instead of one large four-hour block, crews go through separate training before they get in the simulator, then take a two-hour simulator ride covering things they won’t typically see while pulling alert, such as what to do in the case of a fire, or actually launching a missile. Then after the simulator session is complete, there is a debrief where they can talk about what they did right and areas that need improvement.
The Air Force also implemented a “3+3” operational tour concept for missile combat crew officers. It is intended to provide missileers time and direction to focus on developing their weapon system proficiency during the first three-year tour. In their second three-year assignment, probably at a different ICBM base, they will serve as instructors, evaluators, and/or flight commanders. They also will provide guidance and mentoring to other officers while performing alert.
The 3+3 concept is a significant departure from the previous training model. For example, before FIP a missileer could come in as an operator and pull crew for six months, then go be an instructor for eight months, and then be upgraded to crew commander and pull alert for another six months before becoming an evaluator for another six months or a year, said Wilcox.
“We were taking our CGOs who are motivated to do the job and leaving them in positions for only six months,” said Wilcox. In a staff job at a major command or the Pentagon, he said, “at the six-month mark you’re just learning where the rings are. You have to go through several annual cycles of pulling alert, … but we were bouncing them around so much they couldn’t get deep into the position. … Now they can.”
The new concept gets rid of what Wilson referred to as the “one-room schoolhouse,” where everyone, whether they pulled alert three times or for the last three years, received the exact same training.
But not everyone has bought in to the new training paradigm. Before FIP rolled out, missileers generally dreaded pulling alert. That type of culture is not something that can be changed overnight.
First Lt. Grace Butler, who writes simulator scripts in the 10th Missile Squadron mission planning room at Malmstrom, acknowledged that the “paranoia” she and her colleagues felt before FIP has gone away. She said there is “a world of difference” from just one year ago, and she and her fellow crew members now feel “trusted day-to-day to do their jobs.”
But she’s still not sure about the new 3+3 model. She’s not alone.
“I think 3+3 is a great idea for those that want to stay 13N [in nuclear and missile operations]. It provides structured progression that makes sense. You don’t become an instructor until you understand the job better,” said Butler. But “it depends on if you’re individually motivated to do your job. If you need to be happy in your job and you did not want to be a 13N career member, it’s going to be difficult for you to find incentive to do your job well. On the flip side, you volunteered to be in the Air Force and should be willing to do whatever job they give you.”
The problems were different for security forces. Defenders regularly spend long hours traveling on winding, rocky roads in deep snow in the middle of nowhere as temperatures often dip well below zero. In addition, the career field has suffered from a manning shortage, forcing security forces airmen to work even longer hours in such conditions.
“We currently do not have enough manning for every flight to post out to 100 percent,” said MSgt. Robert Wilson, 90th Missile Security Forces Squadron flight chief at F. E. Warren, in a December 2014 press release. “In order to make up for that, we pull what we call a standby; essentially, our airmen are made to work an extra one or two days with other flights to meet mandatory posting requirements.”
FIP has authorized hundreds of new billets to help ease the manning shortfall, and though it will take time to fill all the positions, new defenders are starting to roll in to the squadrons at all three missile bases.
Morale also suffered within the missile security forces community because the airmen were working with inadequate gear. Now they will be issued generation III cold weather gear—seven levels of protection against extreme conditions at northern tier bases—and more comfortable helmets.
Perhaps most motivating, though, is the additional incentive and special assignment pay—between $75 and $300 a month—for enlisted and selected officers serving in 11 nuclear career fields, including SF and missileers.
The additional pay is meant to “incentivize airmen to volunteer for and perform duties in a particular career field, location, and/or special assignment where the scope of responsibility and required skills exceed those of other airmen in the same career field and rank,” said Brig. Gen. Brian T. Kelly, director of force management policy, in an October 2014 news release.
Junior Varsity No More
FIP also brought big changes for the helicopter crews that provide an additional layer of security at each of the three missile bases. Although, the crews are still flying Vietnam-era UH-1N Hueys, the Air Force’s Fiscal 2016 budget proposal at long last fields a replacement by purchasing Army UH-60A Black Hawks for conversion to the UH-60L configuration.
AFGSC also formed a provisional helicopter operations group that will provide a more focused command chain for the three helicopter squadrons under 20th Air Force. The group, based at F. E. Warren, is expected to assume control of the 37th, 40th, and 54th Helicopter Squadrons and a newly formed operations support squadron tailored for the three units later this year.
SSgt. Robert Kohlenberg, a special mission aviator with the 40th HS at Malmstrom, lauded the creation of the new Huey ops group. “I was on the FIP team and one of the bigger examples in the Huey community is that leadership did not understand the risk involved in going out to do the mission and in the training we did day in and day out,” said Kohlenberg. “Now we have top cover at the O-6 level. As Huey guys we never really had that before. … We’ve typically been the junior varsity airframe compared to the HH-60.”
Almost anyone you talk to in the missile community tells you they have complete faith in the current leadership, from Wilson—the commander of AFGSC—down to their squadron commanders. They love the additional pay and really appreciate the money for new gear. And though they’d all like to believe FIP means permanent changes, most also say, “We’ve been burned before.”
For them FIP can’t really be a success story until they see the long-term modernization and sustainment plan for the aging ICBMs and support equipment start to come to fruition.
The last Minuteman IIIs came online in 1973 and they’ve been on nonstop alert ever since. The infrastructure was designed in the 1950s and built in the 1960s—yet the first deep clean of the facilities didn’t happen until late last year. Air Force leaders understand this, and are taking action. The Future Years Defense Plan allocates $5.6 billion for upgrades to the nuclear enterprise over the next five years.
The Fiscal 2016 budget proposal continues incentive pay for certain nuclear career fields and funds various security upgrades, such as the replacement of the nuclear warhead payload transporter van and the addition of cameras at the missile fields, according to documents.
It also helps fill the manpower gap in the nuclear enterprise by funding 1,120 additional military and civilian billets plus 158 technical and engineering staff positions at Hill AFB, Utah, to support the next generation Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent initiative and the Minuteman III infrastructure recapitalization effort.
“I think we have tremendous momentum right now. The challenge will be on the follow-through, the sustainment and the commitment in the long term,” said AFGSC commander Wilson.