November 20, 2013

U.S. nuke troubles run deep; key officers ‘burned out’

The Associated Press

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This April 15, 1997 file photo shows an Air Force missile crew commander standing at the door of his launch capsule 100-feet under ground where he and his partner are responsible for 10 nuclear-armed ICBM’s, in north-central Colorado. Trouble inside the Air Forceís nuclear missile force runs deeper and wider than officials have let on. An unpublished study for the Air Force obtained by The Associated Press cites ìburnoutî among launch officers with their finger on the trigger of 450 weapons of mass destruction. And this: evidence of broader behavioral issues across the intercontinental ballistic missile force, including sexual assault and domestic violence.

AP Photo/Eric Draper

Reported cases of spousal abuse in the ICBM force peaked in 2010 at 21 per 1,000 people, compared to 10.3 per 1,000 in the overall Air Force. The rate for the ICBM force dropped to 14.4 in 2011 and to 12.4 last year. It also has declined for the overall Air Force.

The Air Force's top general, Mark Welsh, said Wednesday he is confident that the ICBM force is on solid ground and performing as expected.

"This is the one mission area in our Air Force that from an operational perspective has been 100 percent effective every day since we started the mission," he said in an interview. "So we're doing something right and we have been for a long, long time."

Still, the RAND study and AP interviews with current and former members of the ICBM force suggest a disconnect between the missile force members and their leaders.

"There's a perception that the Air Force (leadership) doesn't understand necessarily what's going on with respect to the ICBM community and their needs," says Hardison, the behavioral scientist who led the study.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel delivered a "no-room-for-error" message when he visited U.S. Strategic Command in Nebraska last week to welcome Navy Adm. Cecil Haney as the nation's new top nuclear war-fighter, succeeding Air Force Gen. Robert Kehler.

"Perfection must be the standard for our nuclear forces," Hagel said, noting that "some troubling lapses in maintaining this professionalism" have been exposed recently by "close scrutiny" and "rigorous evaluations."

In Hardison's view, expectations of perfection are "unproductive and unrealistic."

"People who are even top performers, who are exceptionally good at their jobs, fear that they are going to make one mistake and that's going to be the end of their career," she said in an interview.

RAND's survey results, while revealing of a level of discontent, are not definitive. Hardison said the findings need to be confirmed on a larger sample population and the results tracked over time.

Perhaps ironically, the person who raised concerns about problems in the missile force was Maj. Gen. Michael Carey, who was fired in October as commander of 20th Air Force, the organization responsible for the full ICBM fleet — for alleged misconduct that officials have said was related to alcohol use.

In November 2012, Carey told Welsh that his organization's misconduct record was out of line with the broader Air Force and he wanted to find faster fixes.

One change already being implemented is ensuring that lower-level officers and enlisted airmen in the missile fields are given more decision-making authority, said Maj. Gen. Jack Weinstein, the interim successor to Carey. He said he also is seeking to ensure more stability in the ICBM force's work schedules so service members have more predictable periods to spend with their families.

Internally, concern about the ICBM force is not new.

In a little-noticed report published in April, a Pentagon advisory group that has studied the nuclear mission said weaknesses in the way the Air Force manages its ICBM workforce have made it hard to maintain.

"This should be a cause for serious concern," the Defense Science Board advisory group concluded.

It said the problem is especially acute in notoriously frigid Minot, where the Air Force has had trouble keeping people in its maintenance and security forces. Harsh climate is no excuse, it said.

"Minot weather has always been Minot weather. What has changed is the perception of negative career impacts, the slow response to concerns and the need for tangible evidence" that work conditions and equipment will improve, it said.

Kehler, the retiring head of Strategic Command, acknowledges that with national security attention focused elsewhere, it's easy to see why some nuclear warriors would be uneasy.

"What happens is, that translates into a very personal concern that's out there in all parts of the nuclear force, and that is: What's my future?"

 

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