Air Force secretary sees 'systemic' problems in nuclear workforce

Thursday - 1/30/2014, 3:50am EST

Jared Serbu reports.

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Just a little more than two months into the job, the new secretary of the Air Force said it's already clear to her that there are "systemic" problems in the service's management of the personnel in charge of manning and maintaining land-based nuclear weapons. And the initial assessments from a high-level review group convened by the secretary of Defense appear to concur with her size-up.

Deborah Lee James was faced with issues in the Air Force's nuclear enterprise almost immediately upon becoming secretary.

Two weeks ago, she stood before cameras at the Pentagon to detail an investigation that implicated at least 34 officers in a scandal involving alleged cheating on nuclear tests and a handful of others for drug use.

By Wednesday, officials said the investigation had expanded to some 70 airmen, all of whom have been decertified from their duties.

James spent last week visiting three bases that host nuclear missiles, plus the headquarters of the Air Force Global Strike Command, meeting with commanders and conducting small town halls and focus groups with airmen.

She said she came back to Washington with several conclusions.

"The need for perfection has created way too much stress and way too much fear," James said. "I heard repeatedly that the system feels very punitive. It doesn't feel like you're incentivized for good, but if anything bad should happen, you're punished severely. I also heard repeatedly that there's a level of micromanagement within this force that should be turned into empowerment. And I heard that the airmen hear that the mission is important, but we don't put our money or attention where our mouth is. There's a difference between what we say and what they feel that we do."

Too much testing?

Speaking to an Air Force Association breakfast Wednesday in Arlington, Va., James stressed that all of the evidence to date shows the current scandal points only to integrity issues among certain airmen, and not that the Air Force has stumbled in the performance of its nuclear mission.

Earlier this month, the Air Force required every crew member in its ICBM force to retake the certification test the cheating scandal had been centered on, under stricter supervision standards, and more than 95 percent passed.

But James said the nuclear community's intense focus on testing may be one of its problems.

"In the current environment, there's no room for error, all of the time. But when you're talking about training, the whole idea is learning. Mistakes happen, and you get better, and that's what training is all about," she said. "But in this environment, everything's a test, and perfect test scores have become the only gauge that lets commanders differentiate among airmen in order to promote them. I think this is wrong. We need to address it, and I think that rather than making a test be the make-or-break element of a young person's career, we need to take a whole-person concept. We need to look at the totality of what they're doing, with the tests as an element."

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel also discussed the issue at the Pentagon Wednesday with the leaders of Global Strike Command, along with nuclear experts from the Navy and Air Force. His spokesman, Rear. Adm. John Kirby, said the consensus in the room was similar to James' — there likely is a systemic personnel management issue in the Air Force nuclear mission area.

At the Pentagon last week, Hagel also broached the notion of an over-fixation on testing.

"Standards must not be eroded, of course not. But is there a better way to do this?" he asked. "Can we be better attuned to their interests? When you put these people in these locations where there's a certain amount of isolation, that's a dynamic you have to factor in, too. Do they get bored? Are we doing enough to incentivize these young men and women?"

Incentives to attract, retain workers

James said that's one key question the Air Force is asking during a review over the next two months. She said the service needs to examine whether the Air Force gives missileers proper leadership training in addition to their nuclear training, whether the service has done enough to make sure airmen entering the nuclear profession have a viable career path ahead of them (and if so, whether they know it), and whether the Air Force offers enough incentives to attract and retain the most promising candidates into nuclear jobs.