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Missileers face extra work, no room for error

May. 21, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
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Not only have Minuteman III missile launch officers had to withstand the media fury over “rot” from within its ranks and being in a “crisis” mode after a subpar inspection, now the remaining launch officers have to pick up an extra 24-hour shift per month to cover for the 17 who are benched for remedial training.

The issue is either another sign of low morale in the missile career field, or an example of responsibility for missileers, a career field that has recently been incorrectly shamed and labeled as “in a crisis,” depending on who is asked.

Leadership of the 91st Missile Wing is continuing to assess missile officers at Minot Air Force Base, N.D., following the suspension of 17 earlier this month for receiving the equivalent of a “D” on a March operations inspection.

Following the news of the inspection, Gen. Robert Kehler, commander of U.S. Strategic Command, ordered his inspector general to review the inspection and the responses to it.

Leadership across Global Strike Command has been looking into morale among the ranks, with each of the command’s five wings taking two morale surveys, including a climate assessment survey within the past year, command spokeswoman Lt. Col. Angie Blair said.

A main issue in the nuclear career field is a lack of future options. Air Force Secretary Michael Donley called it a “very broad and large pyramid at the bottom for the missile crews,” with a lot of junior officers starting out at the control panels, but limited command options down the line in the future.

“The whole problem is if you stay in the nuclear missile field, there are a lot of junior officers pulling alerts. There’s just not that many command positions,” said Bruce Blair, a former missile officer from 1972 to 1974 and director of the Global Zero Initiative. “It contributes to a feeling among ground crews that there’s not many opportunities for advancements with nuclear missiles. Many of them bide time, they pull their stint, and look to cross-train out.”

The statements that nuclear missile officers are in a “morale crisis” show a misunderstanding of how the system operates, missile officers said.

“I believe the morale issues have been inaccurately characterized,” said Lt. Col. David Franklin, commander of the 532nd Training Squadron at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., who has spent 17 years as a 13N officer, including duty shifts at F.E. Warren Air Force Base, Wyo. “I personally came up with and pulled crew with each of the commanders up north.”

“A lot of the negativity ... comes from people who haven’t done the job and who haven’t seen it in action,” said Capt. Nicole Klingensmith, ICBM operations director at Vandenberg.

Franklin and Klingensmith help train new missile officers that near perfection is necessary, which is also the case in inspections such as the March example at Minot.

Critics, such as Blair, have said say this has led to a culture where there is a lack of reward or incentive for performing at a near-perfect level.

“And if you don’t, if you fail, you fail in a shameful way,” he said. “You’re labeled incompetent, practically; you go into remedial training in the doghouse. It’s kind of a black-and-white culture.”

Franklin, however, said that is how the nuclear career field needs to operate, and it is unlike any other career field in the Air Force or in a civilian job.

“There is absolutely no room for incomplete knowledge or substandard performance for operations of nuclear weapons,” he said. “In my opinion, if you hone a self-critical culture and understand that mistakes will be made, you can continue to ensure that your crew force understands that those mistakes will be made. It’s a cognitive shift that you have to make when you deal with nuclear weapons.”

The Air Force recently split the missile and space career fields, looking for more officers to start out in space as opposed to pulling missile duty, and giving nuclear officers who finish their time on alert the chance to cross-train to other jobs in the Air Force.

There are limited long-term career possibilities, making it competitive to stay in and move up, including training jobs at Vandenberg and assignments to STRATCOM. The limited advancement options mean that there is more competition for the slots. During the last two assignment cycles, there were 40 officers competing to get 19 jobs, Franklin said. Klingensmith, who recently moved from duty at Minot to Vandenberg, said she hasn’t felt restricted in her career advancement. Teaching at Vandenberg was her first choice for a follow-on assignment.

“I wanted to shape the people I would want to pull alert with,” she said.

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