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Commanders fired, changes coming for nuclear missile officers

Mar. 28, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
Stephen Wilson
Air Force Global Strike Command Commander Lt. Gen. Stephen Wilson said officers implicated in the cheating scandal could face punishment ranging from letters of counseling to nonjudicial punishment and court-martial. (Charles Dharapak/AP)
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The investigations into cheating and morale problems in the Air Force’s nuclear missile crews brought down 10 commanding officers but will also lead to new money for nuclear facilities and possibly incentive pay for crews.

The Air Force, earlier this year, announced two in-depth looks at problems among nuclear missile officers following the January announcement that more than 90 officers with the 341st Missile Wing at Malmstrom Air Force Base, Mont., cheated on a monthly proficiency exam.

The results of one of those investigations, headed by an officer with Air Education and Training Command, are prompting Global Strike Command to overhaul how missile officers are trained and tested. The second, inspired by a Navy study of its nuclear submarine crews, is moving the Air Force to consider new incentive pay and other measures to improve morale in the intercontinental ballistic missile force.

“The issues we have before us today are tough, and they didn’t come overnight,” Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James said March 27. “They’ve been years in the making. They are not going to get solved overnight. While we have made progress in certain areas in recent years, there is more work to be done. I am sure that we will get there.”

Air Force leaders, on March 27, announced that nine commanding officers at Malmstrom were relieved of command and the base commander is resigning following the cheating investigation, which has now implicated about 100 missileers at the base.

Col. Robert Stanley, Malmstrom’s commander, resigned March 27 and will retire.

Maj. Gen. Jack Weinstein, commander of 20th Air Force, removed nine others from command:

■ Col. Mark Schuler, the commander of the 341st Operations Group. He was the only other officer named by Wilson.

■ The vice commander of the 341st Operations Group.

■ The commanders of the 10th, 12th and 490th Missile Squadrons.

■ The commander and director of operations of the 341st Operational Support Squadron.

■ The director of operations for the 10th Missile Squadron.

■ The standardization and evaluation officer of the 341st Operations Group.

All were relieved for a loss in confidence to lead, said Lt. Gen. Stephen Wilson, commander of Global Strike Command.

The nine officers can continue to serve in other roles and will receive administrative punishment. No other leaders, or any generals, were relieved or punished.

Col. Tom Wilcox, Air Force Global Strike Command security forces division chief, has taken over command of the 341st Missile Wing from Stanley, Wilson said.

“As the leader of the wing, [Stanley] accepted the responsibility for the actions of all of those people who work for him,” Wilson said.

Stanley, in a letter to the wing, wrote that he had one last command: that the airmen come together under the new commander and “forge an even stronger team.”

“We have been forced to navigate through some of the roughest waters most of us have ever experienced professionally,” Stanley wrote. “We’ve seen the reputation of our beloved wing, and America’s ICBM mission, tarnished because of the extraordinarily selfish actions of officers entrusted with the most powerful weapon system ever devised by man. As you are now learning, the ramifications are dire. Many lives will be permanently changed as a result.”

Also March 27, the commander of the 90th Operations Group at F.E. Warren, Col. Donald Holloway, was relieved of command, but Col. Tracey Hayes, the commander of the 90th Missile Wing, said the decision was not related to the cheating scandal.

Of the 100 officers connected to the investigation, nine have been cleared of wrongdoing. Nine are still under review by the Air Force Office of Special Investigation, eight of whom face possible criminal charges for alleged mishandling of classified information. Seventy-nine of the reviewed cases showed evidence substantiating claims of cheating, including officers who sent, received or solicited answers.

The officers could face punishment ranging from letters of counseling to nonjudicial punishment and court-martial, Wilson said.

The investigation centered around four airmen who were connected with taking and texting pictures with test information, including classified answers.

The investigation found evidence of cheating going back to November 2011 and as recent as November 2013.

New money for improvements

The two reviews have convinced the Air Force to “put its money where its mouth is’’ and fund improvements to nuclear bases, Secretary James said.

This year, the service has $19 million funded for projects such as launch control room refurbishments and repairs, and the 20th Air Force is providing $3 million for quality-of-life improvements. The service is requesting $455 million in fiscal 2015 to fund and improve its ICBM squadrons, repair UH-1N Hueys for the missile squadron security forces and pay for new communication systems. Another $154 million will pay for readiness training and improvements to launch control facilities.

The money could also flow to the officers themselves. The Force Improvement Program review, which was based on the Navy review, has led to the creation of “quick look action teams” that are providing recommendations to Air Force leadership on new ways to help address morale, including incentive pay for missileers. Other options include badges for airmen to wear to display their positions in the nuclear career field, Wilson said.

The groups have a “big list” of recommendations straight from airmen, and their recommendations should be announced within weeks, he said.

Training changes

The first investigation, referred to as the command-directed investigation, was led by Maj. Gen Mike Holmes, vice commander of Air Education and Training Command. It looked at training and testing issues. Commanders in missile squadrons were found to micromanage and place too much emphasis on perfection, leading to ethical issues and cheating.

“These were all bright officers,” Wilson said. “None of these officers needed the information to pass the test. They felt compelled to cheat to get a perfect score.”

The Air Force needs to change the missileer culture away from the assumption that crews need to always be perfect, the report said. Currently, a missileer takes three tests per month, each with 30 questions, as well as a master training plan.

This has all “devolved” into evaluations, where airmen perceive that they must be perfect or their careers would be negatively affected.

Current standards showed that 90 percent were passing but officers feared they would be reprimanded for scoring less than 100. Going forward, the missileers will be tested on a pass/fail basis.

“We are not just putting a fresh coat of paint on these problems, we are taking bold action,” Wilson said. “There will be extensive changes to how we build, teach, train, develop and lead our ICBM force.”

Making up lost ground

The airmen connected to the investigation at Malmstrom represented about one-fifth of the entire force. They were all pulled from duty and retrained. Airmen from other bases and in staff positions were forced to go to Malmstrom and cover for those taken off duty. They also were required to work 10-hour shifts, instead of the regular eight.

Wilson said that he expects the base to return to full strength within three months.

Cultural issues

The cheating investigation began about three weeks after James took over the job as secretary in December and since she has visited all three missile bases — Malmstrom, Warren and Minot Air Force Base, N.D. — and has spoken directly with missile crews. She compiled a list of seven key observations for the Air Force to address and publicly announced them in February:

■ Cultural issues. The need for missileers to achieve perfection has caused them undue stress.

■ Distinction between training and testing. Officers should be able to make mistakes and learn, without these mistakes harming their careers.

■ Accountability at all levels. Leaders, along with the relatively young missileers, need to be held responsible.

■ Professional development. The Air Force has to assess if airmen are getting the right leadership training.

■ Reinvigoration of core values. Cheating is a failure of integrity, and airmen have to refocus on their values, including the need to report problems.

■ New incentives. This includes incentive pay, and award ribbons and medals for both enlisted airmen and officers, as a way to improve morale.

■ Other investments. The Air Force needs to use more funding to improve quality of life and infrastructure at missile bases.

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