WASHINGTON — Before Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James ends her tenure as the service's civilian leader, she intends to administer a couple of last action items related to the maintenance of intercontinental ballistic missile facilities.
James plans to issue a memo to Air Force Global Strike Command head Gen. Robin Rand and Air Force Materiel Command head Gen. Ellen Pawlikowski, directing them to investigate several longstanding ICBM maintenance problems discovered at the bases, and put forward suggested courses of action, James said in a Jan. 5 interview.
For example, blast valves, which help shield a launch control center from a nuclear attack, are frequently reported broken. Another regularly non-operational system is the B-plug — a steel door in a missile silo that moves up and down, allowing maintainers to work without exposing the missiles. When the B-plugs are not functioning properly, more security forces are dispatched to guard the visible ICBMs while repair work is conducted. Personnel also reported poor communications equipment, though officials stressed that problems were limited to administrative devices, not the nuclear command, control and communications (NC3) suite.
The memo will also call for a "maintenance roadshow," which James visualizes as a group of experts who will travel to the Northern tier bases to educate operators about recent changes in maintenance and supply chain practices.
Defense News traveled with the secretary in December and January during her fifth and final visits to F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming, Minot AFB in North Dakota and Malmstrom AFB in Montana. During meetings with base leadership and focus groups of airmen responsible for manning and sustaining the ICBM enterprise, James was informed of recurring maintenance problems, which were more numerous at F.E. Warren than the other two ICBM bases, she said.
After the visit to F.E. Warren in December, James told Defense News she expected to put forward a memo with new guidance meant to make it easier for airmen to order spare parts and instill preventative maintenance practices. However, after talking to officials at Minot and Malmstrom, the outgoing Air Force secretary became convinced that more education was needed, not changes to existing practices.
AFMC and the Defense Logistics Agency have made strides to ensure that nuclear weapons systems are considered the top priority and that maintenance needs are taken care of quickly, said Lt. Gen. Jack Weinstein, deputy chief of staff for strategic deterrence and nuclear integration.
"All of that stuff is at work. The problem is, it needs to filter down," said Weinstein, who accompanied James to Minot, Malmstrom, and F.E. Warren. "All the pieces are there. … Now you need to tell the people at the pointy end of the spear, because those people don’t know sometimes. That’s not a negative thing. They just might not know all of the work that’s gone into it."
If possible, James would like Rand and Pawlikowski to travel to the bases to give an in-person explanation of how improvements to the ICBM enterprise have permeated maintenance and supply chain practices. To get all the news about space and strategic systems delivered to your inbox every month, be sure to sign up for our Military Space Report newsletter. "What they all have known for 60 years is the old, stove-piped way," said James, explaining that airmen were sometimes so discouraged that they would not even fill out the forms necessary for a repair or spare part, believing that they would not obtain one. "That was the old way. That’s not what we’re doing any more, and people need to understand that throughout the nuclear enterprise."
Seeing high-level leaders like Pawlikowski and Rand could also boost morale, she said.
"We’ve heard over and over that when people visit, when they show interest, when they put themselves out there to the airmen for them to answer questions, this does go a long way to demonstrate the importance of the nuclear enterprise," she said.