Jeffrey LewisInspections at Minot

I have a new column up at Foreign Policy (“Death Wears Bunny Slippers”) considering this recent story at the Air Force has suspended 17 ICBM launch officers are Minot Air Force Base and initiated proceedings against another.

The column is largely an act of media criticism.  After several Air Force mishaps relating to the handling of nuclear weapons systems came to light in 2007 and 2008, many of us began to argue that declining competence in the nuclear field was the inevitable result of the declining mission for nuclear-armed ICBMs and bombers.

What is interesting about the AP story about the disciplinary actions at Minot is that it represents an attempt to reframe that argument, blaming Global Zero and other arms control efforts for the loss of focus.  As I note in the piece, the timeline of mishaps and disarmament talk simply doesn’t support such an inference. The increase in disarmament talk is, like the increase in mishaps, the effect of the declining utility of these systems.

Having said that, I wanted to explore the relationship between readiness and reporting in a way that I couldn’t fit in the column.

On one hand, the poor performance of the unit does seem to be an example of the sort of problems identified in the Raaberg, Peyer, Donald, Schlesinger and Welch reports.  The Deputy Commander of the 91OG called it “rot” — a metaphor that conveys a systemic problem.

On the other hand, this case is different for the others in an important way.  The incidents in 2006 and 2007 each came light in a manner that reflected poorly on the Air Force. The Air Force did not discover the mistaken 2006 transfer of Minuteman III components until 2008! One might say the Air Force stumbled on to both incidents.

In this case, however, the disciplinary action against the personnel at Minot arose from tougher inspection procedures created in response to past failures.  In 2009 — the first year of the tougher inspections — the Air Force handed out 3 “unsatisfactory” grades on Operational Readiness Inspections.  The Air Force had only given four such grades in the preceding decade.  The three unsatisfactory grades did not represent a sudden one-year decline in operational readiness; they are a statistical artifact of different (and tougher) reporting requirements.

There is truth to the Air Force’s defense that tougher inspections mean more units will receive lower scores, but this should result in higher readiness overall.

SEC. DONLEY: Mr. Chairman, let me assure you that I am confident in the Air Force’s ability to maintain a safe and secure nuclear deterrent. The circumstances that you referred to some years ago are very much personally known to me, as it was the proximate cause for my arrival in the Air Force in 2008. [Donley is referring to Secretary Gates’s decision to fire the Secretary of the Air Force and the Air Force Chief of Staff in response to two nuclear weapons-related mishaps. Ed.] And we have made substantial progress in restoring the confidence, I think, of our entire DOD and congressional leadership in the Air Force’s management of this important responsibility. It is a number one responsibility for our Air Force that we take very, very seriously.

As part of the changes made after this period that you referred to earlier in the 2008 and ’09 period, we substantially strengthened the inspection process. And what you’re seeing and hearing reported in the article you referenced represents a stronger inspection process that has been put in place.

I’ll let the chief amplify on this particular set at the unit involved, but generally, the inspection was satisfactory. But it was rated marginal in one area in particular, and this is an area where the group commander is following up after the inspection to make sure that the officers involved are focused as they need to be on all the details of their mission, and that they have appropriate focus exactly where it needs to be. So we support commanders following up on inspections with those actions that they think are necessary to maintain the highest professional standards for this work.


SEC. DONLEY: First of all, we need to remember that these are lieutenants by and large. They — some of them can be new to the Air Force; they’re within their first few years. So the training process that we have for the nuclear mission is — has the highest standards but needs to be reinforced continually — every day, every week, every month — throughout the year, as there are new people coming in to the system. So the command responsibility to maintain visibility on this and to ride herd on young officers with this awesome responsibility is something — is something that we support. And in this instance the commander stepped in, said these people need refresher training. And so he took them offline to do that. And that is an appropriate command response.


SEC. DONLEY: Senator, thank you. If I could make one comment on that, back to the missile incident — just a brief bit of context. The inspection that was conducted actually has 22 graded areas. The wing was rated excellent in 14 of those 22 and satisfactory in all but one of the others. And that one was an crew operations. They received a marginal rating, which is a passing score but clearly a flag to the leadership of the wing.

As a result of that, the group commander, the wing commander — who are both excellent officers, by the way, and excellent officers and doing exactly what I expect them to do — they followed up with additional testing, additional —

SEN. SHELBY: You’re talking about Colonel Vercher?

SEC. DONLEY: — I’m talking about Colonel Robert Vercher, yes, sir — to make sure that they didn’t have an issue they needed to deal with aggressively.

And as a result of that review, they decided that there was more of an attitude problem than a proficiency problem. And they are not willing to accept that, which is what I pay them for.

I believe this is the kind of commander intervention that prevents the incidents that occurred in 2007. They took very aggressive action early to make sure that there was no question in the mind of their crew force that marginal behavior or sort of satisfactory, just above the line, was not acceptable.

Now, there’s nothing good about the incident, Chairman. I’m not saying that. I’m just saying I like the way they responded. I wish they’d used different language in the email they sent. The word “rot” didn’t excite me, but it got my attention.

I don’t believe that that’s the problem. I don’t believe we have a nuclear surety risk at Minot Air Force Base. I believe we have commanders who are taking very aggressive action to ensure that never occurs. And in that respect, this is a good thing. The idea that we have people not performing to the standard we expect will never be good, and we won’t tolerate it.

SEN. SHELBY: But you’re basically saying that the commander, in this case Colonel Vercher at the top, was doing the proper thing in getting to it and following up on it and trying to correct it. Is that right?

GEN. WELSH: Yes, sir. That’s exactly what I’m saying.

We can disagree about whether tougher inspections will solve the problem — I have my doubts — but I do think we are all over-reacting to the results of a single inspection.

There is, by the way, a broader question of whether a morale problem exists at all. Matthew Vanderschuere  — who spent five years as a Flight Commander in the 320th Missile Squadron (from 2007-2011 as best I can tell) — has argued that he didn’t see a morale crisis during his service:

Speaking broadly, after a five-year missile assignment, I observed that most of our top troops opted to fight for competitive slots to “stay in nukes.” Follow-on assignments to U.S. Strategic Command, ICBM Weapons School, or the 576th Flight Test squadron (which tests unarmed Minuteman III missiles over the Pacific) only went to the best missileers with the best resumes.

I don’t know what to say other than Vanderschuere’s anecdotal reporting differs from the anecdotal reporting in several of the reviews, including the Air Force Blue Ribbon Review and the Secretary of Defense Task Force, which both concluded that the missileers with the best resumes were leaving ICBM force for space operations. It is possible that the situation has improved since the Secretary of Defense Task Force visited FE Warren in 2008, that Vanderschuere is just an optimistic sort of guy, that F.E. Warren has unusually happy missileers, or even that the various reviews got it wrong.

One cautionary thought — Vanderschuere didn’t decide to stay in nukes himself.  He’s now working on a PhD at American University, serving in the reserve.  Presuming he was among the best and brightest, that’s at least one more anecdotal case of brain drain.



  1. Brian W (History)

    Two things. One, the crew members were not decertified for inspection results. After disappointing inspection results, the Wing did its own additional testing and it was after low scores (but not necessarily failures) on that testing that the crewmembers were decertified.

    Two, I don’t think it’s a morale issue as much as it is a change in focus. In some aspects, crew members in the nuclear world have more stress now than ever, with the added micromangement from a whole host of things that their predecessors never had to worry about. At the same time, they’re expected to maintain nearly perfect test scores and evaluation records. However, nuclear alert plays much less of a role in national security now than ever before.

    I think that this disconnect between the stress and expectations being placed on crew members and the realities of the priority of nuclear alert forces for today’s threats and wars that is having a significant effect, if only subconsciously.

    As far as anecdotes, myself and two other former missileer sexpressed these concerns in a 2010 NYT op-ed:

  2. A Complete Stranger (History)

    The US has a variety of missions and not all of them can be the raison d’etre du jour. Given this focus on other missions, the command structure has to find ways and means to maintain a high level of combat readiness in all deterrence roles. My impression of this action, when I first heard about it, was that the Air Force had acted decisively and should be congratulated. I still believe that to be the case. But moral is definitely a vital part of combat readiness.
    Historically, SAC had a high moral under LeMay; who undoubtedly would have fired the 17 missileers too. But was LeMay able to maintain moral in the face of high discipline only because of the mission? Or was he able to instill a feeling of elit status because of the high level of discipline. That would be an interesting question to answer.

  3. anon (History)

    Just a quick note on your comment about the career path issue: “…the Air Force Blue Ribbon Review and the Secretary of Defense Task Force, which both concluded that the missileers with the best resumes were leaving ICBM force for space operations….”

    This problem is one of the key reasons why ICBMs were moved from Air Force Space Command to Global Strike Command. In 2008, when this was identified as a problem, it was an easy, and expected shift from ICBMs to space because it was all in the same command. Lts knew that they had to serve their two years underground before they could go off and fly satellites (the FUN STUFF!). With ICBMs now in Global Strike command, not only are there more career paths for people who stay in the ICBM world, there is no natural path into the satellite world. So, although some of the best and brightest may still opt out of staying in the ICBM world, the system does not push them out now, as it did in 2008. Oh, the Bruce Blair quote that says they can’t wait to leave the ICBM world to fly airplanes, well that’s just not true. Flying a plane and turing keys underground are two different skill sets. They don’t overlap…

    As for the question of a loss of focus and low morale due to the diminshing role of nuclear weapons in U.S. national security policy… I think this concern is a bunch of hogwash. If your are a 22-year old assigned to sit underground with the missile launch codes, that is your one and only mission. The national debate on the role of nuclear weapons (not to mention Bruce Blair’s 30-year old reference points on missile operations) have no effect on you. This is your job. Your only job. It is the MOST IMPORTANT THING you do every day. Its not your job to follow the national debate on nuclear weapons. To the extent that happens in the Air Force,its at a much higher level in the food chain. Morale may be low because its a boring, tedious, lonely job, but not because the officers sit in the pods wondering whether the nation values their efforts. If they were worried about that, they would have chosen a different specialty…

    • Jeffrey (History)

      The problem with ” If they were worried about that, they would have chosen a different specialty…” is that it is essentially a normative judgement about how they airmen _ought_ to behave.

      What we have is an empirical question – are airmen behaving in a way that is contrary to the standards we set and, if so, why.

      I take seriously the question about whether the “rot” really continued after changes such as the creation of Air Force Global Strike Command in December 2009. I am a little troubled by the lack of data. All of the studies are essentially anecdotal and impressionistic, even some made an effort to survey a large number of individuals. (My old officemate worked on a military culture study that illustrated a lot of the limitations and challenges associated with collecting data about such things. I still recall colleagues trying to reconcile widespread complaints about late-90s OPTEMPO/PERSTEMPO — oh little did they know! — with high reenlistments rates in deployed units. NSFW) There certainly was a problem manifested in the events of 2006 and 2007. It is an open question whether it is solved.

      I have my doubts about whether _this_ specific incident is evidence of any general pattern. Again, I am inclined to accept the Air Force claim that the Commander is acting out of an abundance of caution. The use of “rot” is worrying, but it is simply another anecdotal observation.

      I am still inclined to think that it will be hard to recruit and retain the sort of talent we expect of a nuclear weapons enterprise for the ICBM force, but I’d love some actual data. It might be a useful thing for one of the Armed Services Committees to request in the next NDAA.