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James: Air Force is addressing 'systemic' problem in nuclear force

Jan. 29, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
James SECAF ceremony MWM 20140124
'The need for perfection has created way too much stress and way too much fear' in the nuclear force, Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James said Wednesday. (Mike Morones/Staff)
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Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James said Wednesday the service will “get to the bottom” of a systemic problem in its nuclear force, where 14 percent of officers reportedly have been at least temporarily removed from active duty after allegations of cheating on a proficiency exam.

“We do have a systemic problem,” James said at an Air Force Association event in Arlington, Va. “The need for perfection has created way too much stress and way too much fear.”

The Air Force is also looking at improving pay and career options and addressing problems such as burnout and micromanagement in an attempt to make the career field more appealing for new airmen, she said.

Two weeks ago, James and Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh announced that 34 nuclear officers allegedly cheated or covered up cheating on a nuclear proficiency exam late last summer at Malmstrom Air Force Base, Mont. The Air Force Office of Special Investigations learned of the cheating while investigating illegal drug possession among missileers.

Last week, James visited the Air Force’s three intercontinental ballistic missile bases — Malmstrom; Minot Air Force Base, N.D.; and F.E. Warren Air Force Base, Wyo. — to discuss the issues with airmen and base leadership. And Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel ordered a review of the Air Force’s ICBM force, including bringing in the Navy to help assess the situation.

“The mission is strong, but I also want to say that the chief and I are going to get to the bottom of this,” James said.

The Associated Press reported Tuesday that the number of airmen implicated in the scandal has doubled, meaning about 14 percent of the nuclear missile officer force has been at least temporarily removed from active duty. James on Wednesday could not confirm the number of airmen involved, but said more details will soon be available.

“This is not acceptable, and contrary to our No. 1 core value of integrity,” James said. “This was a failure of the integrity on the part of certain airmen, not a failure of the mission. The mission is strong.”

James outlined several issues that she has taken away from her visits to the bases and from talking to airmen. These include:

■ The Air Force doesn’t incentivize good work by airmen, but instead has created a culture that places an emphasis on perfection and punishing anything less.

■ Micromanagement needs to be replaced by a culture of empowerment.

■ The missile forces need better funding. The airmen are told their mission is important, she said, but the service doesn’t follow through with enough funding. Among areas that could be addressed by better funding are pay, for officers and enlisted, and military construction to address quality-of-life problems.

■ The forces have lost a distinction between training and testing.

■ Problems exist with commissioning and training missile officersat Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. The service will review if the officers are getting the right leadership training and making sure they have proper career path opportunities.

“In short, we need to work to make this career field, in fact and in perception, something that young airmen want to do,” she said.

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