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US bonus pay part of Air Force nuke force reforms

June 11, 2014

WASHINGTON (AP) — The U.S. Air Force intends to offer bonus money and other incentives to members of its nuclear missile corps as part of a broader plan to fix what ails the force.

A string of recent training failures, security missteps, leadership lapses, morale problems and stunning breakdowns in discipline prompted Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to demand action to restore public confidence in the nation’s nuclear force.

The fleet of 450 intercontinental ballistic missiles based in North Dakota, Montana and Wyoming are armed with nuclear warheads, ready for launch on short notice any day, any hour. The Air Force says the ICBMs are vital to deterring a nuclear attack.

Air Force leaders are planning to offer bonuses, fill gaps in the supervisory ranks, offer a nuclear service medal and put more money into modernizing what in some respects has become a decrepit Minuteman 3 missile force that few airmen want to join.

The potential impact of these and other planned changes is unclear. They do not appear to address comprehensively what some see as the core issue: a waning sense of purpose in a force that atrophied after the Cold War ended two decades ago as the military’s focus turned to countering terrorism and other threats.

Even so, some analysts are encouraged by these initial Air Force moves.

“I think this is a step in the right direction,” said Dana Struckman, a retired Air Force officer who commanded a Minuteman 3 missile squadron in 2003-05. “I think it will make a difference.”

Driving this effort is Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James, who took over as the service’s top civilian official in December amid a series of embarrassing lapses by the men and women who operate, support and lead the force.

In January, after visiting a Minuteman 3 base, Hagel declared, “We know that something is wrong.” He ordered a pair of comprehensive reviews. Both reviews missed their initial deadlines for completion, and Hagel has said little publicly about it in recent months.

The cascade of bad news began in May 2013 when The Associated Press revealed that a group of ICBM launch officers at Minot Air Force Base had been stripped of their authority following a poor inspection result and other problems. The AP also disclosed that the deputy operations commander at Minot had complained in an internal email of “rot” in his ranks — an assessment that aired a range of morale and other behavioral, training, leadership and security problems that later emerged at the ICBM bases in Wyoming and Montana.

In October the two-star general in charge of ICBMs was fired for drunken behavior while on official business in Russia, and in November the AP revealed an unpublished study that found evidence of “burnout” among missile launch officers and cited elevated rates of personal misconduct within the ICBM force.

In January, just weeks after taking office and days after the discovery of an exam-cheating scandal among nearly 100 launch crew members in the 341st Missile Wing at Malmstrom Air Force Base, James declared herself “profoundly disappointed” and announced that the ICBM force was in need of closer scrutiny. She visited all three ICBM bases and said the problems were “systemic,” not isolated.

Also in January, the Air Force disclosed that three ICBM launch officers were among those implicated in a criminal investigation of drug use or possession — a probe that remains active.

Since then, the Air Force has developed and begun publicizing internal changes aimed at fixing what ails the ICBM force.

Among the potentially important moves, James has recommended to Hagel that he put a four-star general in charge of the nuclear Air Force, including the ICBM and bomber fleets, thereby elevating its status and clout inside an Air Force more focused on air, space and cyberspace missions. A three-star general currently is running the force. Raising the rank to four stars will require approval by Congress.

Such a move would put the Air Force more in line with the Navy, where a four-star officer oversees its nuclear force.

The Air Force also plans to offer extra pay to attract and keep people in the missile fields.

Bruce Blair, who was an ICBM launch officer in the 1970s and now advocates for elimination of the missiles, said he doubts the changes will have a lasting impact.

“The real solution to this backwater career that attracts practically no volunteers and that leaves the crew members disillusioned and angry is to eliminate it altogether,” Blair said.

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Follow Robert Burns on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/robertburnsAP

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