Crushing the rules violators
The Air Force has tried to lend morale-boosting drama to the fifty-year old Minuteman launch jobs, with a colonel flogging the missileers in an email last April to act like they’re on a “go-to-war team” and a visiting general comparing them in a March speech to Babe Ruth or Ty Cobb, always ready to “knock one out of the park.”
It also asks its missile combat crews to spend around 40 days annually in a $9.7 million launch simulator at Vandenberg Air Force base, where they are supposed to become acclimated to reading codes, turning keys, and flipping the switches that would bring death to millions.
But many missileers dislike the assignment, and chafe at being stuck underground for so much of their four-year tours, with little hope of rapid advancement or deployment to a more interesting location. Their chief opportunity, after the first two years, is to shift to the chair next to theirs affixed atop a metal rail in front of the launch control panel, moving from deputy launch commander to commander.
What they most want to do is to sit “fewer alerts,” as recent Air Force focus groups have revealed.
In trying to create a happier workforce, the Air Force has known for years that it faces long odds: “The most difficult issue and the one with the most long-term implications is the widespread perception in both the Navy and Air Force that a nuclear forces career is not the highly promising opportunity of the past era,” an internal Pentagon study concluded in 1998.
By 2008, when the Defense Science Board surveyed more than 8,000 nuclear weapons personnel, the Air Force in particular had lower morale than the other services. Just 37 percent said they wanted to perform “nuclear deterrence related work” until they retired — compared to 62 and 83 percent of those surveyed in the Navy and Army — and fewer in the Air Force said they were willing to recommend their organization as a good place to work.
A confidential study by the RAND Corporation last year confirmed that behavioral and morale problems were more severe among missile force members than others within the Air Force, according to an Associated Press account. The court martial rate among missileers was more than double the overall Air Force rate in 2011 and 2012, as were rates of spousal abuse, although the Air Force says the rates have since declined.
But the pale motivation and weak discipline of some missileers came more forcefully to the public’s attention last May, when a missile group commander at Minot Air Force base wrote a lacerating email to his combat crew members that leaked to the Associated Press. Calling attention to low scores during recent inspections — including some marginal performances in the missile launch simulator, Lt. Col. Jay Folds wrote that “we’re discovering such rot in the crew force” that officers from other missile fields were being summoned “to come pull alerts at Minot while we fix ourselves.”
Folds demanded that his missileers “crush any rules violators,” including those “that do so on purpose.” He told them to turn off their televisions and improve their test performance, and to stop leaving missile silo blast doors open while they slept — a routine that launch capsule veterans say has long been commonplace, despite the obvious security risks.
“No more questioning the rules and orders of the officers appointed over you!” Folds ordered in the email, according to a full copy obtained by CPI, promising “consequences” for those who continued to “bad mouth” their work. “Gone is … the environment where we handed things to you on a silver platter because we thought that’s the way you take care of the crew force.” Seventeen combat crew officers were pulled from alert duty for two months.
In subsequent months, the missile force’s problems — and the public's awareness of them — only grew larger. When investigators probing the alleged drug ring seized the cellphones of suspects at Malmstrom, they discovered that dozens of lieutenants on missile combat crews had been exchanging questions and answers from their proficiency tests for nearly two years.
The tests, administered every month, covered the handling of codes, missile operations, and responding to so-called “emergency war orders” — the authority to unleash nuclear destruction. Ten officers had texted or received a classified test answer without safeguards. They did so, the Holmes report said, because they needed perfect scores to be promoted to other, above-ground Air Force jobs.
Senior Air Force officers responded in March by ordering nine of that base’s group and squadron leaders — all colonels and lieutenant colonels —removed from alert duties, on the grounds that they were not monitoring their crews sufficiently to detect the cheating. The overall commander of Malmstrom’s missile “wing” resigned.
As for Folds, a year after berating his missile crews, he is no longer in his post, having accepted an academic fellowship in Boston. Meanwhile, the Air Force has decided a gentler management approach is better-suited to keeping the millenials happy. “Occasionally, we’re going to … [swing] and miss, and I’m okay with that,” Wilson, the Global Strike Commander, startlingly told Malmstrom’s missileers during a Feb. 26 visit. “I’m good with striking out — that’s what makes us better. It is okay to fail.”
The Air Force also decided to refurbish more launch control centers, revise some of its testing materials, and try to create more attractive career paths. The Personnel Reliability Program has been overhauled to strip away some higher-level reporting requirements and push oversight and decision-making down to the local commands.
In taking a wider view of the test cheating problem, Holmes wrote that he was following the “Reason Model of Human Error.” That’s a slightly garbled name for the theory propounded in 1990 by University of Manchester social psychologist James T. Reason that complex systems — particularly those with highly-perfected mechanical devices at their heart — can fail, sometimes catastrophically, due to mistakes made by the executives who create and manage them.
Reason’s insights from studying air-traffic controllers, hospitals, and nuclear power plants prompted him to be hired by railways and airlines in an effort to anticipate when poor supervisory practices — including excessive corner-cutting, undue budget reductions, and the setting of unrealistic performance expectations — might culminate in unsafe acts. One of his most famous presentations included a series of Swiss cheese slices, representing checks and safeguards, with the holes unexpectedly lined up so that a catastrophe could still occur.
But while the Air Force has embraced this theory in name, its leadership still rejects any suggestion that its missile launch system has any inherent flaws, that cheating or other problems are widespread at the two other missile bases, or that workers’ shortcomings at Malmstrom were well known up the chain of command. “There was a few, handful of people that were at the crux of this problem,” Wilson, head of the Global Strike Command, told reporters on March 27, mentioning four in particular, three of whom he said were involved with drugs.
The missile wing commander who resigned, Col. Robert W. Stanly II, struck a similar theme in a grumpy resignation note that decried the failure of “just one solitary airman” to let any higher-ups know of the rule-breaking, so they could have leapt into action. He said the “extraordinary selfish actions of officers entrusted with the most powerful weapon system ever devised” had kept everything hidden.
'Really unhappy' missileers
A somewhat different account is buried in the bowels of the Holmes report. It says that focus groups and a survey at Malmstrom indicated that many of those who passed through the training at Vandenberg were “conditioned” to expect test coaching at the missile bases. Many crew members believed test sharing was widespread and that the rewards justified the risks. Sixty percent said their squadron leaders knew about it.
“Cheating has been going on for years; however, leadership pretends that the cheating is not happening,” said one of the focus group participants. “You can talk yourself into doing things that you wouldn’t ordinarily do because you see a culture of compromises and a leadership that’s aware of what’s going on and tolerates it,” said another.
After the embarrassing RAND Corporation report on low morale leaked last year, the commander who oversaw the entire 450-missile Minuteman III force, Maj. Gen. Michael J. Carey, told the Associated Press that morale at Minot is “not bad” and that missileers there are “not unhappy.” But the following month, when Carey joined seven other American officials on an official trip to Moscow, he told them that “his group had the worst morale” and the Air Force’s leadership “wasn’t supporting him,” according to an October 2013 report by the service’s inspector general.
“They’ve done a study and saw that his … you know, the missile bases or everyone is really unhappy,” one of the Americans on the trip quoted him as saying. “He is trying to make it better and leadership is not helping out and not listening to him.”
It’s true that Air Force leaders are not listening to Carey today. He was removed from his post after the service’s inspectors concluded he engaged in inappropriate behavior on the trip besides publicly savaging his Air Force superiors. On April 10, the Air Force said he would retire in June at less than his full rank.
Specifically, witnesses said he drank excessively, including from an open vodka bottle handed to him by his hosts; he insistently demanded that the band at a Mexican restaurant in the Russian capital let him sing or play the guitar on stage; and he repeatedly sat or walked with Russians instead of members of his own group, including several attractive women who showed up at two different restaurants and kissed him on the cheek.
According to the report, he also spent most of an evening talking with the cigar shop saleswoman at the Moscow Marriott hotel who he later recalled “was asking questions about physics and optics.” He said he recalled thinking, “Dude, this normally doesn’t happen.”
The lesson appears to be that there’s no immunity, among the missileers at various ranks, from poor judgment and low spirits while pursuing their marginalized profession.
Senior reporter Douglas Birch contributed to this article.
This article was co-published with Slate.com.