CHEYENNE, Wyo. — Years after several scandals shook the US Air Force's nuclear enterprise to its core, measures put in place to bolster morale, better equip airmen, and improve training and testing seem to be taking effect. But operators at the missile bases say there is still work to be done, particularly with regard to sustaining the aging missile-launch facilities that are becoming more difficult and expensive to maintain.
After a visit on Dec. 7 and 8 to F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Cheyenne, Wyoming, Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James told Defense News that one of her last acts as the service's top civilian will be to try to ameliorate maintenance issues discovered during her final trip to the base.
Defense News traveled with the secretary during the trip, sitting in on meetings with base leadership and a morning operations briefing where James sought input from missileers and maintainers. James also held two separate focus groups with officers and enlisted airmen, who run the gamut from security forces to cooks.
"We want to really dive more deeply into the maintenance arena. Some more attention may be merited there," she said in a Dec. 8 interview after the visit. "Sometimes spare parts aren't available anymore because they're too old, or sometimes they just haven't been ordered in enough supply to be available when they are needed."
James plans to issue a memo containing new guidance meant to improve sustainment of the launch facilities, make it easier for the service to obtain spare parts and instill a culture of preventative maintenance. The particulars are still being formulated, and James said she intends to get input from Air Force Materiel Command head Gen. Ellen Pawlikowski and Lt Gen. Jack Weinstein, deputy chief of staff for strategic deterrence and nuclear integration, on how best to implement changes.
There's only so much the service can do to upgrade its launch facilities ahead of its larger intercontinental ballistic missile modernization initiative, called Ground Based Strategic Deterrent, James acknowledged, but "I'm equally sure there are some things we can address here, we just have to put our heads together and figure out our target list in the near term."
One sustainment challenge repeatedly mentioned by base leaders and operators were broken blast valves and emergency shut-off valves, two layers of protection that help shield a launch control center from a nuclear attack.
"When our blast valves are inoperable and our emergency shut-off valves are inoperable, now we have a concern about the hardness of the launch control center," said Lt. Col. Russell Williford, 320th Missile Squadron commander. Williford clarified that because the centers are built with many redundant systems that help protect it, it’s not an immediate cause for worry if one piece needs repairs. But "if both of my blast valves were down at a launch control center, then I would have a big concern because now we’ve lost some of the redundancy."
In those cases, the service would shut down the site and dispatch maintainers to conduct depot-level repairs. But the age of the infrastructure can sometimes present a challenge.
"Those items, at some point over 40 years, the back stock just goes away, so fixing those is real challenge because you have these amazingly brilliant airmen that are in the maintenance and civil engineering world, and they can do amazing things, but they can’t remanufacture a part that was 40 years old without a design," he said.
Because many of the necessary parts are obsolete, it’s almost impossible to do preventative maintenance on things like blast valves and emergency shut-off valves. Instead, maintainers are left waiting for a part to break before chasing down a replacement — which could take a while to obtain.
"It’s kind of like you’re chasing the problem," he said.
Another recurring issue mentioned by multiple sources during the trip were broken elevators used to move equipment and people through the launch facility. Again, the issue is parts obsolescence, not a lack of funding to the nuclear enterprise, which has largely improved since 2014, Williford said.
"If an elevator breaks, how do you fix it? We go out there are we look at it. That motherboard hasn't been built for 10 years. So we then go to a vendor and say, 'We need one of these,' and they go, ‘Well, where's the engineering drawings for that?' " he said. "They may have to reverse engineer the required part and then manufacture that one off part. For a lot of these things, we don't have a back stock because the vendor went out of business 10 years ago. They no longer even exist."
The weather can also play a role in what gets fixed and when, said Master Sgt. Chris Bradshaw, assistant noncommissioned officer in charge of the 90th Missile Maintenance Squadron’s missile maintenance team. Maintenance crews try to do as much work during the summer as possible because the winter weather at the ICBM bases is so harsh that it becomes difficult to do anything but the jobs that are absolutely necessary.
"The winter months roll in and we start to look at: Is it really smart to put this vehicle out on the road when we have snow on the ground and super high winds and less visibility? Do we really need to get this done today, or can we push this a little further?" he said.
'Winning the Culture War'
Nuclear issues have been a focus for James from the beginning of her tenure to its waning months. James took on the role of Air Force secretary in 2014, shortly before news broke implicating Air Force missileers in a systemic cheating scandal at Malmstrom Air Force Base, Montana, caused in part by pressure from leaders to score perfectly on monthly exams.
That was not the first embarrassing incident involving the Air Force nuclear enterprise to be unearthed in the early 2000s.
The Air Force in 2007 lost track of nuclear warheads for 36 hours when a B-52 mistakenly loaded with nuclear-tipped cruise missiles flew from Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota to Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana. Less than a year later, the Defense Department announced that it had mistakenly shipped four fuses used on ICBM nose cones instead of helicopter batteries to Taiwan in 2006. Although the fuses were eventually returned, Taiwan was in possession of the components for 17 months.
Ultimately, then-Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne and then-Chief of Staff Gen. T. Michael Moseley were fired in 2008 as a result of the mismanagement of the nuclear enterprise.
Over the past four years, the Air Force has conducted numerous studies and focus groups before implementing sweeping changes to the way it tests, trains, equips and operates is nuclear forces. Most prominent was the Force Improvement Program (FIP), which allocated $160 million in fiscal 2014 and about $181.1 million in fiscal 2015 to add billets, upgrade vehicles for security forces, offer incentive pay, and institute other changes to the testing and training regiments of the nuclear force. Under the auspice of FIP, the Air Force conducted the first-ever deep cleaning of the launch facilities and bought new cold-weather gear for security.
The service also raised the profile of the nuclear community by elevating Global Strike Command leadership to a four-star general and making the deputy chief of staff for strategic deterrence and nuclear integration a three-star position on par with other members of the Air Staff.
"I think we are winning the culture war," James said after her trip to Warren. James also had planned to visit the other two missile bases — Malmstrom and Minot — during the December trip, but blizzard conditions and plane troubles forced the secretary to reschedule.
"Morale is significantly up. Everyone seems to feel much more empowered," she said.
But there is still more to be done.
First Lt. Allia Martinez, left, 320th Missile Squadron missile combat crew commander, and 2nd Lt. Benjamin Lenos, 320th Missile Squadron deputy combat crew commander, perform checks on the strategic automated command and control system Nov. 6 in a launch control center at F.E. Warren Air Force Base, Wyo. The 90th Missile Wing sustains 150 Minuteman III ICBMs and the associated launch facilities.
Photo Credit: Staff Sgt. Christopher Ruano/US Air Force
During her focus groups at Warren, James noted one population was less enthusiastic about changes to the nuclear enterprise: junior enlisted airmen.
"I think maybe the least amount of improvement, where we still have spotty morale, is within some of the enlisted ranks, and I think that’s particularly true, perhaps in the younger ranks," she said. "They’re lacking in sufficient number of midlevel enlisted — so think staff sergeant level — because that’s the level that’s supposed to mentor the young airmen," she said.
More staff sergeant-level security forces are on the way, but it will take time to season staff sergeants in other career paths.
A second look at special duty administrative pay may also be warranted, but the path forward will likely be up to the next administration.
"What I heard was people like it, but people who aren’t currently getting it want it," she said. "The idea was to give a reward for the special sacrifices, the special circumstances associated with going out to the missile fields. So people on the bases don’t get [special duty assignment pay]. But maybe there’s a way to rotate more."
One of the biggest problems exposed by FIP was that lower-ranking airmen were no longer allowed to make many basic decisions without seeking permission from a commander. Senior Air Force leaders interviewed for this story recalled having more authority in the early days of their careers than most airmen had in the early 2000s.
For instance, when the security system is not working properly, guards are dispatched to protect the area while maintainers fix the problem.
"When I was a crew member, when the maintenance folks fixed the security system, you ran a couple tests," and then a lieutenant could release the security teams that patrolled the site in camper vans, said one senior leader not authorized to speak on the record. "I came back and realized that they weren’t releasing the camper teams anymore. It was being done by squadron commanders."
Another Air Force official noted that security forces at the time often lacked adequate cold-weather gear or even a camper van with working heat — an example of how this lack of empowerment could exponentially degrade morale.
"I don’t know if you can imagine being somewhere where it’s minus 30 and the heater doesn’t work," he said.
Since FIP, operators said they felt less encumbered by bureaucracy and more able to make decisions without having to constantly move up the chain of command.
"If you see something that you don’t think is right, or you think something needs to change, you can speak up," Bradshaw said. "You can definitely see it. As they are transitioning through, they’re definitely saying: ‘Hey, you know, what about this?’ "
During his time as a missileer at Minot Air Force Base in the early 2000s, Williford didn’t feel like his ideas could effect change, he said. "We didn’t feel like we had ownership of our community." Now, as a commander, he expects his squadron to come to him with ideas like new training events. He also has more authority to improve the operational and leadership skills of his squadron by implementing those ideas and encouraging them to participate in professional development programs.
Missileers also noted a difference in testing and training. For example, before, FIP missileers were trained in a classroom, took an exam every month and were expected to score perfectly, even though a 90 percent score would allow him or her to pass.
"When we took the Force Improvement Program and we built it, we brought in B-1, B-2, B-52 guys, and they watched what we did," said Williford, who was one of the chief architects of FIP. "I would actually watch their face, and I could kind of count down to when they had that epiphany of ‘What are you doing?’ "
Now, training is more focused on gaining proficiency through simulation and interactive exercises, with testing done every 15 to 18 months. In short, the ICBM enterprise looked at the best practices of other Air Force weapon systems and moved toward a similar training curriculum, he said.
Valerie Insinna was Defense News' air warfare reporter. Beforehand, she worked the Navy and congressional beats for Defense Daily, which followed almost three years as a staff writer for National Defense Magazine. Prior to that, she worked as an editorial assistant for the Tokyo Shimbun’s Washington bureau.