MINOT AIR FORCE BASE Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James says changes in the intercontinental ballistic missile community are already being implemented after a bottom-up review that the Air Force has conducted in recent months.
James visited Minot Air Force Base on Tuesday, her second visit to the base this year. During her first visit in January, in the wake of a cheating scandal at Malmstrom AFB in Montana, she told airmen she would get to the bottom of the scandal but also would make plans to improve morale and other changes.
Minot Air Force base is one of three ICBM bases in the nation. The others are F.E. Warren AFB at Cheyenne, Wyo., and Malmstrom AFB.
Since her last visit to the missile communities, James said, at a news conference Tuesday at Minot AFB, she has mostly noticed improvements in empowerment. "The missile officers as well as some of the other officers have directly reported that their commanders are indeed pushing down a lot of the more decision-making to their level," James said.
Relating her earlier visits to the bases and the recent months of reviewing the nuclear enterprise, she said the cheating incident was just a very small element in comparison to the overall story. The overall story, she said, was a culture that was too micromanaging and so focused on zero defect that it didn't allow for a healthy training environment. "A healthy training environment means you need to go into a learning environment you have to continually improve, you have to learn from your mistakes.... that's how you get better. This didn't seem to exist in our ICBM world and I thought it needed to change I thought it needed to change across the board," James said.
She said she also thought accountability was needed for what happened at Malmstrom, and that accountability now has occurred. "We need accountability in the future make sure we get it right in the future as well," she said.
James and Lt. Gen. Stephen Wilson, commander of Air Force Global Strike Command, with headquarters at Barksdale AFB, La., said most of the investigation of the cheating incident at Malmstrom has been completed. Wilson said about two-thirds of the missile officers involved in the incident are back performing missile duty and the others are not.
James said people have reported that they've begun to see some of the redirection of money for the ICBM mission, including more spare parts to repair some of the vehicles and some of the gear has arrived to update some of the facilities at the launch control centers.
In the Air Force, James said, "planes and satellites and ICBM missiles all of this is really cool stuff but what we're really about in the Air Force is people. And that's our first call, that's my first call, is taking care of people," she said. She said morale, especially for airmen, is very important.
As part of the Air Force's improvements for the nuclear enterprise, James said Maj. Gen. Jack Weinstein, commander of 20th Air Force, who is responsible for the ICBMS, has issued a variety of new directions to the force designed to get away from the micromanagement situation and instead push the decision-making down to lower levels.
"Empowerment is the word going forward. Zero defect is no longer the culture we want to have in this force. In fact, we want to have continual learning, continual improvement where people are comfortable to make a mistake in a training environment because that's the way you get better, that's the way you learn. So we're trying to turn that around and General Weinstein has certainly taken the lead there," she said.
She said the Force Improvement Program led by Lt. Gen. Stephen Wilson, commander of Air Force Global Strike Command, with headquarters at Barksdale AFB, La., got airmen involved with putting forth their ideas for how to improve the force. "Thanks to that we have identified a whole series of items," she said.
She said $50 million for fiscal year 2014 plus $350 million for over the next five years, money that is over and above what would have otherwise be spent for this force, are going to help fund a variety of priority items including the improvements to the launch control centers.
"By the way, some of the feedback I received is that money has begun to flow and these improvements are happening," she said. She said the money will include new gear and body armor for security forces. "In the area of mission support there are changes planned as well," she said.
To strengthen the nuclear enterprise, she said 1,100 additional people, particularly airmen with expertise in several critical specialties in the nuclear world, will be deployed.
Nuclear communities both bomb and missile wings will be getting the additional people, according to Air Force officials. The specific number for Minot AFB is not available yet but the Minot base is to get about one-third of the 1,100 airmen who will be redeployed from other bases.
James said she has also recommended to the secretary of defense that Air Force Global Strike Command "that is very ably led by Lt. Gen. Wilson, a three star (general)," that the command be elevated to a four-star command.
"I say this because other major commands in the Air Force, for the most part, are four-star level. It's not everything but rank does count in the military," James said. "I think the importance of the nuclear mission merits that we have a four-star at the table to talk about these important issues going forward."
"My overall belief, based on all the discussions in the last several days, is number one, morale is up, we are making progress. People are, in particular, feeling more of that empowerment and they like it," she said. She said some things haven't happened yet but are on their way.
She added, "The nuclear mission is safe and secure, and it hasn't missed a beat in these last six months."