Air Force, Navy Take Steps to Restore Nuclear Forces’ Reputations

By Stew Magnuson
A November report on the state of the U.S. military’s nuclear weapons delivery programs was the latest in a long list of indignities that have plagued the Air Force and Navy.

When it came to the two services’ nuclear weapons enterprise, the report written by retired Air Force Gen. Larry D. Welch and retired Navy Adm. John C. Harvey said, what enterprise?
“The review did not find a coherent, integrated structure and synchronized set of activities that could be characterized as a DoD ‘nuclear enterprise,’” the report said.

The Welch-Harvey review, along with an internal report, were ordered by then Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel following missteps, scandals and long-term neglect by the two services responsible for delivering the nation’s nuclear weapons. While the Department of Energy develops, manufactures and maintains the warheads, the Air Force and Navy must ensure that the personnel and platforms are in place to deliver them.

Controversy has touched upon all three legs of the so-called nuclear triad: intercontinental ballistic missiles, airborne bombers and submarines.

An early indication that something was wrong came in 2007 when six AGM-129 ACM cruise missiles — each loaded with a nuclear warhead — were mistakenly transported from Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota to Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana. No one noticed the missing warheads for 36 hours.

Later came scandals in both services where junior officers cheated on qualification exams.

Meanwhile, the Air Force put control of its bombers and missiles under one roof when it created its Global Strike Command in 2008. Consolidating the two missions was an attempt to solve some of the problems facing the nuclear enterprise.

Six years later, Welch and Harvey’s “Independent Review of the Department of Defense Nuclear Enterprise” found that little had changed. It generally lauded the lower ranking servicemen and women who had to contend with the draconian responses to the earlier scandals, but slammed leadership for not straightening out systemic problems and for failing to provide personnel with the equipment and conditions needed to carry out the mission.

Maj. Gen. Garrett Harencak, Air Force assistant chief of staff for strategic deterrence and nuclear integration, said the report was tough to swallow, but a necessary exercise to put the Air Force on the right path.

“Yes, some of the recommendations were critical. Most of them were spot on. Some stung a bit. Some left a mark, but in the end, it was vitally important for us to get that out into the light of day,” he said at an Air Force Association breakfast.

The Air Force prior to the November release of the independent review was already taking measures to reform the way it conducts operations under the force improvement program.

Of the 114 recommendations given to the Air Force, it agreed with 112 of them, Harencak said. It is currently tracking a total of 175 items that need to be accomplished. Some are relatively easy: buy a certain tool that airmen are lacking. Others, such as ensuring that the nuclear enterprise is, in fact an enterprise, are more complex, he said.

At the end of the Cold War, “We tried to normalize nuclear operations for very good reasons,” he said. When Strategic Air Command went away, the idea was to make nuclear deterrence look like every other mission that the Air Force carries out, he said.

“What we lost was this concept of that as an integrated enterprise,” he said.

“In retrospect, nuclear deterrent operations are not normal. They’re not. They’re different. And they must be treated different. We now understand that. We understand that not treating it as an enterprise was a mistake,” he said. “Good people had to make some tough decisions. We drew down in the early 1990s and it seemed to make sense to do it,” he continued.

One of the review’s chief criticisms was that in the wake of the B-52 incident, the Defense Department mandated a strict inspection regime. Over the years, passing the inspection has become the mission, not the mission itself.

The report’s authors called it a “demand for micro-perfection.”

One mistake by a sailor or airman having a bad day could result in an entire crew or wing being given a failing grade. The draconian inspection regime made everyone from commanders on down fearful. Morale took a blow, which caused further manpower and experience shortages as personnel left the force.

The “inspection culture” caused units to “spend their time and resources on inspection rather than the mission,” the report said.

Harencak commanded a nuclear base in 2008, which had inspectors on site 161 days out of the year.

“We lost our way, and we got crazy about the importance of inspections. So of course, that developed a culture where people said, ‘The only thing that really matters is me getting by my next inspection.’ That was wrong. … Good people thought it was what needed to be done. But it turned out, it wasn’t.”

The Air Force has revamped the inspection process. It is now “more logical and common sense,” he said. It is still difficult and highly challenging for units, but it focuses on mission accomplishment and not just passing inspection, he added.

The personnel reliability program, which determines if officers are mentally and physically fit enough to be trusted around nuclear weapons, was also a system that “had lost its way,” Harencak said, echoing the review’s findings.

“It became incredibly bureaucratic mainly focused on medical record keeping and nothing of what it was supposed to be about, which is a commander looking at his airman in the eye and saying, ‘You are reliable. You can be trusted around nuclear weapons.’”

The report criticized leadership for not supporting the lower-ranking airmen and sailors.
“Senior leadership declares that the nuclear mission is uniquely important. Yet, in their daily work, sailors, airmen and Marines experience shortages in the materiel, qualified personnel, facilities and funding support delivered to the forces,” the report said.

Minot Air Force Base — the only facility that hosts both ICBM and bomber wings — serves as an example. A B-52 squadron was added there in 2011 but the base was allocated no new buildings, including an essential flight line maintenance facility. Work on a new one only recently began.

Daycares at the base do not support 12-hour shifts, wait lines at medical facilities are long, and the commissary has sharply reduced hours. Salaries for civilians can’t match up with what the local oil fields are paying.

Senior noncommissioned officers often retire rather than take assignments at Minot, or leave to take better paying jobs in the energy sector. Many of the senior maintenance NCOs no longer have experience repairing B-52s, the report said.

Harencak said the Air Force is beginning to turn around Minot’s bad reputation, with an emphasis on the ICBM missile crews.

“We have asked our airmen: ‘What is it that you need in the nuclear enterprise as you do your incredibly difficult, but important jobs in some of our most austere environments?’

The Air Force is looking at everything from how airmen cook eggs at the launch control facilities to how it sustains its systems, including the vehicles they drive, the equipment they use and the tools they need.

“This is not just a checklist mentality,” he said, but rather a process of continual improvement.
Harencak admitted that the missile control centers, buried deep underground on the High Plains, were unpleasant places to work. It had been so long since they had been cleaned, that military spouses had been known to make officers returning home after their shifts to strip off their clothes before coming inside their houses, he said.

“We never really, really deep cleaned the launch control rooms. It seems like a minor issue. Unless of course, you have to sit down there for 24 hours,” he said.

Other simple steps to make their lives better: doing away with grueling schedules, and giving them better vehicles when they have to drive up to three hours to the missile control centers on lonely roads in bad conditions.

“In all fairness, very few people used to volunteer to” be missileers, he said. However, the Air Force is boosting their pay and now they are signing up willingly. They are now the highest-paid lieutenants in the service, he said.

On the Navy side, officials said the Obama administration is proposing increases to address some lingering issues.

The report stated that “the aging of the SSBN fleet, combined with funding and manning shortfalls in both the operational forces and support structure have caused unpredictability in a historically predictable pre-deployment, patrol and refit cycle. Today, constant adjustments in refit schedules have caused variable patrol lengths, which further compress an already intense off crew training period, resulting in long working hours in what was previously a ‘decompression’ period between patrols.”

Rear Adm. William Lescher, deputy assistant secretary of the Navy for budget, said: “To support our commitment to a safe, modern and credible nuclear deterrent, we add $2.2 billion across the next five years to the nuclear deterrent enterprise. This funding supports the increased shipyard capacity highlighted earlier; provides added manpower for weapons surety and training systems; and addresses facilities improvements.”

Lt. Robert Myers, a spokesman at the Navy office of information, said two of the service’s internal assessments had already identified most of the problems highlighted during the nuclear enterprise reviews. “In fact, many corrective actions for issues identified during the nuclear enterprise reviews were already in progress,” he said. 

“The Navy’s nuclear forces are an integral part of promoting global stability and our national defense. Safety is paramount and, as highlighted in our [fiscal year 2016 budget], we remain committed to maintaining a nuclear capability that is safe, secure and effective,” he said in an email.

As for the “micro-perfection issue, he said, “The Navy inspection process is one of the strengths of our enterprise and will continue to contain the right amount of rigor to verify the safe execution of the nuclear mission. Additional adjustments in the scope of some evaluations will further support this effort.”

The Navy will also increase the authority of the director of strategic systems and programs, who will become the central lead for oversight of the service’s nuclear deterrent enterprise.

The Air Force 2016 budget request included funds for new vehicles for missileers and 1,120 additional billets to support the enterprise. In addition, it seeks to replace Vietnam era UH-1N helicopters that provide security among the missile fields with refurbished UH-60A Black Hawks.

Harencak said the two reviews have accelerated reforms.

“We we’re working on it but we weren’t getting a lot of headway until we got the support of these recommendations,” he said.

“Nobody likes to be criticized. But it’s like anything else. A good debrief only makes you better next time you fly. And that’s exactly what we had in these reports.

“I’m 100 percent positive of only one thing,” he continued. “That we don’t have it 100 percent right. And that’s okay. Because what we have put in place is a process of persistent and continuous focus that will allow us too make sure that well into the future that we don’t use a checklist mentality,” he said.

Topics: Missile Defense

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