A year later: Responding to problems in the ICBM force

By Adam Lowther | February 12, 2015


Editor's note: The author of this article served on as part of a command-directed team that investigated morale problems in the US missile forces.  

On January 15, 2014, the Air Force announced that it had uncovered cheating on monthly proficiency exams by missileers at the 341st Missile Wing at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana. This revelation came out of an Air Force Office of Special Investigations probe into the use of synthetic drugs within the Air Force; during the drug inquiry, investigators found illicit test material on the cell phones of airmen. For new Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James, high-visibility misconduct involving the intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) force was a baptism by fire just weeks into her tenure. Many openly wondered how James and the Air Force would handle this latest black eye for the Air Force nuclear enterprise.

Over the course of the last year, five reports provided Air Force leaders with almost 1,000 pages of observations and recommendations. The Air Force has undertaken a remarkable number of reforms that involve the training of missileers and the funding and staffing of missile units. The long-term affects of these changes are uncertain. There is, however, real reason to believe that the cultural change needed to prevent future incidents of a similar nature is under way, because the Defense Department and Air Force are finally dedicating significant resources toward redressing two decades of neglect. 

Investigations, studies, reviews.The response to the cheating scandal began shortly after it was made public, when Lt. Gen, Stephen Wilson, commander of Air Force Global Strike Command, launched the Force Improvement Program or, as it is usually known in the acronym-heavy Air Force, the FIP. This program aimed to make positive recommendations, emerging from the grass-roots level, that would address morale and quality-of-life issues first highlighted in a 2013 RAND study of missileer morale.

The FIP borrowed from an approach used by the Navy, focusing on the airmen in the field, which is not the norm. Junior enlisted men and junior officers interviewed their peers to identify their most pressing concerns and the root causes of those concerns. The same airmen then formulated recommendations for systematically improving the force. The FIP team visited each of 20th Air Force’s three missile wings (the 90th, at Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming; the 91st, at Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota; and the 341st, at Malmstrom) to conduct a wide-ranging and in-depth analysis of wing operations, interviewing 835 airmen and surveying an additional 1,800.   

The FIP was accompanied by a Study on Operations, Training, and Evaluation (with its own acronym, SOTE) conducted by a small team of Air Force officers and more narrowly focused on training and evaluating ICBM crews. This study has perhaps received the least public exposure, but largely came to the same conclusions as the FIP and a third study, the Command Directed Investigation (CDI), which was, according to an Air Force memorandum, to examine "the circumstances and causes of the Malmstrom AFB test compromise, including but not limited to: a. training and testing culture; and b. leadership environment and oversight." 

The CDI investigating officer was also told to examine allegations against missileers from the 341st Missile Wing who were charged with sharing unauthorized test material or having knowledge of such activity. Ultimately, 88 missileers came under investigation, for integrity violations and for other forms of misconduct. Ten additional cases were kept by the Office of Special Investigations because they dealt with the misuse of classified material.

While the FIP and CDI probes were under way, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel was also informed of cheating within the Navy's nuclear program and commissioned then-Assistant Secretary of Defense Madelyn Creedon and Rear Adm. Peter Fanta to conduct an internal review of American nuclear forces. According to their report, “The internal review was specifically asked by the Secretary of Defense to examine the nuclear mission regarding personnel, training, testing, command oversight, mission performance, and investment.”

Soon after commissioning the internal review, Hagel asked retired Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Larry D. Welch and retired Adm. John C. Harvey to conduct a separate external review that eventually spent 90 days examining the Air Force’s and Navy’s nuclear operations.

Investigation and review results. The Command Directed Investigation was completed in February 2014, substantiating misconduct allegations against 79 officers. Separate from that probe, Maj. Gen. Jack Weinstein, commander of the 20th Air Force, took a wide range of action against officers involved in misconduct; 16 have received nonjudicial punishment that included forfeiture of pay and a reprimand. Most of the remaining officers received administrative action—paperwork that fell below the level of nonjudicial punishment. One officer received a memorandum for record—that is, documented verbal counseling. One officer left the Air Force before action could be taken, and four officers’ cases are still pending. 

The Command Directed Investigation made about 40 recommendations involving testing, evaluation, and leadership. These recommendations were based on a large number of interviews, focus groups, and surveys.

The Force Improvement Program was completed in March 2014; it offered more than 300 recommendations for improving the morale, working environment, and culture at the three missile wings. It did not examine misconduct or attempt to explain why it occurred.

With the Creedon-Fanta internal review complete in April and the Welch-Harvey external review complete in June, the 20th Air Force saw no less than four sets of teams visit its three missile wings over a four-month period. All of the reports offered similar conclusions about the systemic problems facing the ICBM force. All together, five reports included almost 1,000 pages of observations and recommendations addressing a variety of issues, including missileer training and understaffing in 20th Air Force. Many of the recommendations, however, were not exactly revelations; they had been offered in previous reports over the last decade.

Answering the why question. So why did a group of young missileers decide to cheat on their monthly proficiency exams? The answer is both simple and complex. Put simply, the missileers shared illicit test material to ensure they scored a 100 percent on their exams so they would be better positioned for progression and avoid punishment in an environment in which individual perfection was the standard at all times. None cheated to pass an exam. To find the more complex answer—that is, considering these actions within a larger context—requires looking at the ICBM force over the post-Cold War period, with a focus on three areas.  

Mission. From its inception in 1958—when the 576th Strategic Missile Squadron was activated at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California to operate the new Atlas-D ICBM—the missile force has faced a challenge that continues today: convincing young officers that serving on a missile combat crew is critical to national security. During the Cold War, this challenge was mitigated by the presence of a clear adversary that, but for the American nuclear triad, might attack the United States. When the Soviet Union collapsed on December 26, 1991, the collective sigh of relief was almost universal.

For missileers, however, it was the beginning of an era in which the most frequent threat to American security came from rogue regimes and violent nonstate actors. Over the next 20 years, American airmen performed with distinction in operations Southern Watch (1992 to 2003) and Provide Comfort/Northern Watch (1991 to 2003) in Iraq, Allied Force (1999) in Kosovo, Enduring Freedom (2001 to 2014) in Afghanistan, and Iraqi Freedom (2003 to 2010) in Iraq. Missileers, however, were “deployed in place” during much of this period. They were on the sidelines as Presidents George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama each articulated the serious threats posed to the United States by terrorists, in essence suggesting the nation faced a much-reduced threat of nuclear conflict.

During this same period, President George H.W. Bush signed START I  and START II, reducing the number of deployed strategic nuclear weapons by approximately 75 percent. George W. Bush signed the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT)  in 2002, further reducing the number of such weapons to a maximum of 2,200. Soon after taking office, President Obama announced in his Hradcany Square Speech in Prague that he would like to see a world free of nuclear weapons. He advanced that goal when his administration negotiated New START, bringing the number of deployed strategic nuclear weapons down to a maximum of 1,550 on 700 delivery vehicles. The president later suggested he would like to negotiate further reductions that might bring the number of deployed weapons down to just 1,000.

In addition to these cuts, missileers lost an established culture when the Strategic Air Command (SAC) was deactivated in 1992. Absent SAC, and the clear sense of purpose it provided, the 20th Air Force spent its first year in existence as a component of the newly formed Air Combat Command, whose focus was clearly on tactical airpower. The 20th Air Force subsequently came under Air Force Space Command, where the nuclear mission was clearly second to space operations. In this period, from 1993 to 2009, the space and missile career fields were combined, and missile officers were encouraged to spend as much time gaining space experience as possible; “If you’re not in space, you’re not in the race” was a common refrain for the officer who sought to be promoted. Not until 2009, in response to other shortcomings in the nuclear enterprise, did the Air Force create the Global Strike Command, reuniting the strategic bomber and missile forces.      

For missileers, the combination of cuts to the force (from nine to six to three missile wings), an obvious reduction in the role of nuclear weapons in national security, and the Air Force’s simultaneous de-emphasis of the nuclear mission harmed the sense of purpose that is central to successful mission performance. When missileers began to believe that they were no longer valued and in a dead-end career field, mistakes and deliberate violations of rules became more likely and more frequent.

Given the significant number of “expert” studies that have appeared over the past five years suggesting that the ICBM leg of the nuclear triad should be deactivated, it is no wonder that morale has been a persistent challenge in the missile force—despite recent efforts to address existing challenges. Simply creating the Global Strike Command was insufficient to reverse the unfavorable trends in morale, in part because the command was given insufficient funding and manpower when it was created.

Money. When then-Air Force Chief of Staff Gen Merrill McPeak reorganized the Air Force in 1992 and deactivated SAC, it was partly a response to a significant post–Cold War drawdown. McPeak and his senior staff sought to gain greater fiscal and manpower efficiencies within an Air Force that had recently won a conventional conflict in Iraq, using precision-guided munitions that had proven central to its success. In splitting the nuclear mission between bombers and intercontinental missiles, both the bomber and ICBM missions suffered. As the Welch-Harvey report highlighted, missileers were, until recently, driving up to three hours in heavily used vehicles—many with more than 200,000 miles on their odometers—to their missile alert facilities. There they would “pull alert” in launch control centers that had a desperate need for cleaning and renovation and lengthy backlogs of overdue maintenance for their 1960s-era components. This situation sent missileers a clear signal about the importance of the nuclear mission.

Manpower. In the years between 1993 and 2009, the ICBM force suffered a number of manpower reductions that delivered “death by a thousand cuts.” Round after round of cuts left missile squadrons without the mid-level leadership to mentor junior officers effectively, while cuts to staff and support functions were commensurate with operational cuts. It is important to note that the ICBM tactical squadrons are on alert 24 hours per day, 365 days a year, meaning they have little ability to reduce or limit operations when the Air Force seeks to reduce manning.

As Michael Morgan, the executive director of operations at Global Strike Command and a former missile wing commander, wrote me in an email, “Manpower was stretched tighter and tighter over time, and then the events of 2007 and 2008 drove exceptionally difficult inspections with the results being published openly.” In short, manpower gaps led to mistakes, which led to tightening inspection regimes, which ultimately led to more pressure on the overworked staff to perform. And it was this focus on tighter inspections and greater oversight by leadership, rather than providing the ICBM force the needed manpower and money, that also helped motivate the cheating at Malmstrom, many current and former officers told me.

Some additional examples of cuts are instructive. Under SAC, the ICBM Future Concepts Office, which provided the conceptual underpinnings of future systems design and requirements, was composed of three majors, led by a lieutenant colonel. Today, all of the work those four people performed is considered an additional duty for a single major. These and other similar cuts left fewer, more-junior personnel to do more functions. As a result, each task was given less time. Although a positive step, the creation of the Global Strike Command did nothing to resolve these manpower shortfalls.

These mission, money, and manpower challenges were significant contributing factors to the personnel issues that have come to light in recent years in the missile force. Although the Air Force tried to manage its fiscal and personnel resources effectively to support an unending series of combat operations spanning more than two decades, a second-order effect of this focus on current combat operations was a loss of focus on the nuclear mission. There was nothing nefarious about the decisions made, but as the pace of operations in the Middle East and Central Asia continues to slow, the time to refocus on the nuclear mission is at hand.

Reform, one year in.  Returning to each of the three missile wings 12 months after visiting as a member of the Command Directed Investigation team, I found a stark contrast from the year before. In interviews with more than 50 people across the 20th Air Force, ranging from senior leaders such as wing commanders and mission support group commanders to junior officers and enlisted airmen, it was clear that it and its missile wings were in the midst of dramatic change. What was perhaps most unexpected to me was the speed of change. Over the past six to nine months, 98 percent of the Force Improvement Program's recommendations either have been or are being implemented. While many millennial-age airmen at the wings think the speed of change too slow, for those with much time in the federal government, it is clear that Secretary James is actively working on reform.

Almost immediately after the CDI was completed, monthly proficiency testing moved from a 100-point scale to pass/fail. This was a first step in placing testing in a proper context. As the 20th Air Force and the missile wings looked further at how best to improve training, they decided to completely overhaul the training process, effectively creating a new training culture that allows missile crewmembers to make mistakes without fear of punishment.

For example, monthly testing has now been replaced by an additional monthly “trainer ride” in the Missile Procedures Trainer—a launch control center simulator. This additional time in the trainer provides realistic practice and enables the missile crews to work on areas needing improvement without fear of being disqualified from duty because of a mistake during a training scenario. Also, there is a move to make missile crew commanders responsible for training their deputies—a further move away from the previous culture of micromanagement. Another reform of note is the movement of instructors from the operations support squadron back to the tactical squadrons, where training is most effectively integrated into missile operations.

While this is a positive move, it is perhaps more important that missileers will, under a new “three plus three” construct, spend their first three years on the crew force “pulling alert” in the field and their second three years as instructors or evaluators—dramatically increasing the experience level of the average trainer.

In regard to funding, the Air Force has responded to the Force Improvement Program and other studies by shifting $160 million to the ICBM mission. This badly needed funding was used, in part, to purchase 95 four-wheel-drive trucks for missile and maintenance crews, replacing vehicles long past retirement age. Air Force personnel are also now deep cleaning the launch control centers that, because they had not been scrubbed from top to bottom since they were built, often smelled like a musty attic.

Maintenance crews now are able to replace tools and equipment that, in some cases, were 40 years old. Maintainers are being given the funds to make costly repairs to launch control centers and missile silos—repairs that had, in some cases, been put off for a decade.

A sometimes overlooked component of missile operations is security. The personnel that guard missile facilities are receiving new rifle scopes that give them greater range and visibility and new uniforms and cold-weather gear. When the temperature drops to minus 40 degrees, and the wind is blowing at 30 miles per hour, warmth matters to the person standing guard topside, while maintenance crews work on a missile below ground.

Global Strike Command has also received funding for 1,102 additional billets, with more than 700 of these going to the 20th Air Force. Additional security forces, technicians, maintainers, resource managers, supply personnel, and missileers will ease the scheduling burden of this 24/7/365 mission, which previously had effective manning levels that were among the lowest in the Air Force. Another personnel change worthy of note is the reintroduction of two assistant operations officers in each tactical missile squadron, who will help bridge the gap between top officers and the missileers they command, who are usually lieutenants and junior captains.

Some airmen at the missile wings have a “wait and see” view of ongoing reforms, particularly new missileers, whose experience in the missile field has been largely positive. Some more experienced missileers are concerned that a new commander at the 20th Air Force or Global Strike Command or a new Air Force Secretary may shift funding and manpower to other areas, as happened after the Cold War. Sustaining reforms in the missile wings may largely depend on whether the Air Force remains committed to the nuclear mission over the next five, 10, and 15 years. For some observers, how the Air Force handles the proposed development of a new Ground Based Strategic Deterrent—a replacement for the 40-year-old Minuteman III weapon system—will serve as a telling sign of the service’s commitment to the ICBM force.

On a more personal level, the men and women of the ICBM force see the ongoing modernization of the Russian and Chinese missile forces as a clear sign that America’s adversaries consider the ICBM critical to their own defense. With public reports constantly updating the progress of these nations as they build new warheads and more capable delivery platforms, many airmen at the missile wings are left wondering why some Americans—including some political leaders—advocate the deactivation of the nation’s ICBMs. Reading the strategic tea leaves, many airmen across Global Strike Command see the rise of China and the resurgence of Russia, along with an unstable North Korea, portending a future of uncertainty that will only be stabilized by a capable nuclear force. If they are wrong, Americans will have purchased weapons they did not need to use. If they are right, the threat of unacceptable loss that ICBMs project may just be enough to prevent the unthinkable. 

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Richard W. Brown
Richard W. Brown
2 years ago

I was an ICBM launch officer from 1973-1977. Nothing I read here convinces me that anything has really changed. At least we got new vehicles every two years. What we called MBF (Management By Fear) still appears to be true.