hWASHINGTON — Working to reinvigorate its nuclear force after years of missteps and scandal, the Air Force is putting a four-star general in charge for the first time in the post-Cold War era. His mission: Restore institutional muscle and assert more influence on the force's behalf.
"Having a four-star in charge of this command will be crucial," Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James said in an interview, "because rank matters."
Gen. Robin Rand, a career fighter pilot, will take over Tuesday as commander of Air Force Global Strike Command, replacing Lt. Gen. Stephen Wilson. Rand has never served in the nuclear force, but he has broad experience in the Air Force, most recently as commander of the organization in charge of all recruiting, technical training and professional military education.
He steps in amid optimism in the Air Force that it has put its nuclear force back on track. A series of Associated Press reports revealed that the force had atrophied and morale had suffered, in part because of a lack of resources as other arms of the service prevailed in competition for dollars and power.
Elevating the Air Force nuclear bomber and missile command to four-star rank was among the recommendations last fall by an independent panel that studied the root cause of slip-ups, particularly within the organization that operates and manages the Air Force's 450 Minuteman 3 intercontinental ballistic missiles, or ICBMs, at bases in Montana, Wyoming and North Dakota. The study was undertaken on orders from Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel in response to the AP reports starting in May 2013 that documented evidence of low morale, weak discipline and training gaps.
Hagel ordered top-to-bottom changes and pledged $8 billion in new investment over five years.
He endorsed the independent study's conclusion that having a three-star run the nuclear force was a mistake.
"There is no substitute for" four-star influence, the study said, adding that relegating the nuclear command to lower rank sent a "less-than-desirable message to the airmen performing the mission."
The days of having a four-star nuclear command ended at the close of the Cold War when the U.S. dismantled Strategic Air Command, the Air Force's strategic bombers were reassigned to Air Combat Command and the ICBM fleet was given to Air Force Space Command. A shocking mishandling of nuclear weapons at a bomber base in 2007 brought reforms that led to creation of Air Force Global Strike Command, the organization that Rand will now lead.
The command manages the Air Force's nuclear force, but the military's nuclear war-fighting group is U.S. Strategic Command, headed by a four-star admiral. It also has other responsibilities including cyber and missile defense.
Virtually the entire nuclear Air Force chain of command has been overturned since the AP disclosed in May 2013 an internal Air Force email lamenting "rot" inside the ICBM force. The note's author was Lt. Col. Jay Folds. He was reacting in part to training and disciplinary breakdowns at the Minuteman 3 wing at Minot Air Force Base that prompted the Air Force to suspend 17 launch officers, an unprecedented action that came to light only through the leaking of Folds' email.
Folds is now a full colonel and recently became the No. 2 commander at the 341st Missile Wing at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana.
Rand, a 1979 graduate of the Air Force Academy, has run the Education and Training Command since October 2013. Before that he headed the Air Force component of U.S. Southern Command, and he commanded the Air Force's main fighter wing in Iraq in 2006-07. He declined to be interviewed for this article.
His lack of nuclear experience is not a worry, said Air Force Secretary James.
"I think he's just the ticket," she said. "The No. 1 thing this community needs is it needs a fantastic leader, an inspirational leader."
"It would have been great if he also had the nuclear experience, but in this case we didn't have somebody immediately in the wings who was ready to take that on at that level, who had that experience."
Tony Carr, a retired Air Force officer who is studying law at Harvard, says putting a non-nuclear officer in charge can serve as a check against complacency.
"Elevation of the position to a four-star billet is even more remarkable," he said. "This reflects the Air Force's acknowledgement that institutional neglect is a special risk in this community. A four-star's access and presence at the highest level of resource allocation and policy collaboration is an insurance policy against that neglect."
James and other senior Air Force officials say they are confident that the ICBM force has been jolted out of its doldrums and its era of decline.
"The actions we've taken over the last 18 months are moving us in the right direction," Maj. Gen. Jack Weinstein, commander of all three ICBM wings, said in late June.