The U.S. Air Force has begun encouraging strategic-missile crews to bring forward mission concerns amid a Pentagon probe of the entire nuclear arena.
The newly established Force Improvement Program is “an aggressive, action-oriented effort with the goal of making rapid and substantial change to the ICBM mission,” states a Thursday release from the Air Force Global Strike Command, which oversees all U.S. intercontinental ballistic missiles and heavy bombers.
In recent months, there have been numerous reports about problems with professionalism and ethics among some of the officers tasked with operating the U.S. arsenal of approximately 450 Minuteman 3 silo-based ballistic missiles. Known issues include widespread cheating at a Montana base on an exam needed to maintain missile-launch certification; some missileers napping while on alert duty with the blast doors open, a violation of security rules; and an investigation into drug possession by some Global Strike Command officers.
A number of former and current nuclear-missile officers have said there are serious problems with low morale across the mission area, with a number of crew members concerned the job has become a career-ending backwater. They have reported feeling pressure from above to score 100 percent on proficiency tests.
In announcing the new Force Improvement Program, Global Strike Command head Air Force Lt. Gen. Stephen Wilson emphasized in a letter to crew members that “this is a grassroots-level effort. From the bottom, up, that’s where the solutions are going to come from.”
The initiative includes working groups made up of junior and senior noncommissioned officers, lieutenants and captains from each of the command’s three strategic ballistic missile wings. A total of five so-called “Functional Cultural Working Groups” have been established, each with a different focus: missile operations, security forces, maintenance, mission support and helicopter operations.
The teams are to meet with each missile wing this month to discuss and “identify challenges in their respective mission areas, and upon completion will recommend solutions directly to Wilson,” according to the release.
The problems appear to go beyond the Air Force. The Navy on Tuesday announced it was investigating allegations of cheating on certification exams for sailors who operate nuclear reactors in naval vessels.
U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel last month ordered Air Force leaders to make fixing problems in their nuclear branch a top priority. Hagel also has called for an internal and external review of professionalism and ethical issues affecting Navy and Air Force nuclear personnel.