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Seeking nuclear cures, Air Force retraces old path

Feb. 11, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
A mockup of a Minuteman 3 nuclear missile is used for training by missile maintenance crews at F. E. Warren Air Force Base, Wyo. In launching an ambitious campaign to boost morale in a troubled nuclear missile corps, the Air Force is retracing steps it took at least five years ago, revisiting proposed reforms that either died on the vine or fell short of fixing problems that persist.
A mockup of a Minuteman 3 nuclear missile is used for training by missile maintenance crews at F. E. Warren Air Force Base, Wyo. In launching an ambitious campaign to boost morale in a troubled nuclear missile corps, the Air Force is retracing steps it took at least five years ago, revisiting proposed reforms that either died on the vine or fell short of fixing problems that persist. (Robert Burns / AP)
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WASHINGTON — In launching a new search for cures to what ails its nuclear missile corps, the Air Force is considering proposals it tried five years ago, according to internal emails and documents obtained by The Associated Press.

Many of the proposals fell short when they were tried before, but the new effort is more far-reaching, on a tighter timetable and backed by Defense 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 The AP also disclosed an unpublished study that found evidence of "burnout" and frustration among missile launch officers and ICBM security forces.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.

In remarks at a Washington think tank on Wednesday, James said she is taking a holistic approach to correcting the missile corps' problems because they are "systemic," or widespread, not isolated. And she said she had found on her visits last month that morale in the ICBM workforce is "spotty," with pockets of low as well as high morale.

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, Mont., 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, and 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 defense 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.

Last summer, shortly before he was fired following an Air Force investigation of his alleged misbehavior 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 came 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 also 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 leadership and professional development, she said.

Back in 2009, a group of ICBM officers and enlisted airmen developed a list of 42 proposed steps, including financial and education incentives. They included bonuses and other extra pay as well as ribbons, other forms of recognition and steps to reduce the workload and make the ICBM base locations less unattractive.

"These are only rough ideas being looked at, so please do not assume any or all of these will (be) implemented," Col. Michael Spencer, then vice commander of the 91st Missile Wing at Minot Air Force Base, N.D., wrote in an email Feb. 2, 2009. In an email a month earlier, he said the top ICBM boss at the time, Maj. Gen. Roger Burg, had told his higher headquarters in August 2008 that incentives should be pursued.

"The incentive issue is still alive," Spencer wrote in a Jan. 9, 2009, email, "even though the process is slow moving."

In a May 2009 email explaining the ICBM incentives survey, Burg wrote that it was part of a broader effort by the most senior Air Force leaders to restore public confidence in U.S. nuclear forces.

"We need to understand from the field perspective where you think we can improve our efforts," Burg wrote, "and to get your thoughts on the actions the Air Force can take to either remove the disincentives for people to stay in the ICBM nuclear enterprise or to introduce incentives that might encourage you to remain."

Chaitra Hardison, a behavioral scientist who led a RAND Corp. study of work conditions in the ICBM force a year ago, told the AP last fall that her interviews with members of the missile force revealed doubts about the sincerity of Air Force leaders who have insisted for years that this mission is truly their top priority.

"There's this perception," she said, "that if the Air Force really valued the ICBM world they would be giving them the resources that they need" — not just in terms of hardware but also incentive pay and achievement awards.

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