Exclusive: Air Force to Scrutinize Nuke Bomber Units Following Missile Scandal

The push underscores a fundamental question: Can the nuke force police its own?

Air Force photos
Air Force photos

BARKSDALE AIR FORCE BASE, La. — The Air Force will scrutinize its units that fly dozens of bombers capable of carrying nuclear weapons across the globe, the latest aftershock of an embarrassing cheating scandal in its nuclear missile force that led to the unprecedented removal of nine commanders from their jobs and the resignation of a 10th in March.

The review, which hasn’t previously been reported, is the next phase of the service’s nuclear “force improvement program,” and will operate in a similar fashion to the ongoing assessment of the beleaguered missile units, said Lt. Gen. Stephen Wilson, who oversees both forces from here as the chief of the Air Force’s Global Strike Command. The general said the first review found an array of areas that needed improvement, from old equipment to poor morale, and that he hopes the new internal study will identify parts of the bomber fleet that can be fixed to avoid future problems. Global Strike Command’s forces include Boeing’s massive eight-engine B-52H Stratofortress bomber and Northrop Grumman’s stealthy, bat-wing shaped B-2 Spirit, each of which can be equipped with conventional or nuclear weapons.

The bomber review will occur in May and June, and include interviews with hundreds of rank-and-file Air Force personnel. It comes just three months after senior Pentagon officials acknowledged that an investigation into drug use in the Air Force had uncovered widespread cheating on monthly proficiency tests among nuclear missile officers at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana. About 100 officers were ensnared in the probe — more than half of the 190 missileers at Malmstrom — and 82 ultimately received administrative discipline ranging from letters of counseling to non-judicial punishment. Criminal cases remain open against nine officers for alleged drug activity or sharing classified information — test answers — on unclassified cell phones, Air Force officials said. The drugs linked to the case include ecstasy and amphetamines.

The cheating scandal exposed significant problems with morale and leadership in the force safeguarding the United States’ aging arsenal of nuclear missiles, top Air Force officials say. But it also raised a fundamental question for Global Strike Command, which oversees both the nuclear bomber and missile forces: Can an organization that was founded in the wake of another crisis shake off its demons and move forward?

The command was established nearly five years ago after another scandal in which six cruise missiles loaded with nuclear warheads were mistakenly loaded onto a B-52H bomber at Minot Air Force Base, N.D., and transported without the usual strict security precautions to Barksdale, a sprawling, tree-lined installation near Shreveport along the Red River. That gaffe, along with other mistakes, prompted a Pentagon investigation that led then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates to fire Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Michael Moseley and Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne from their jobs on June 5, 2008.

Current Air Force Secretary Deborah James, Wilson, and other top service officials have promised accountability following the latest crisis. But they also appear determined to do whatever they can to avoid another one. In addition to launching the review of the bomber force, Air Force leaders say they want to restore trust with the rank-and-file troops safeguarding the nation’s nuclear missiles, and are actively looking for ways to do so.

“We’ve got to hit singles. We’ve got to start showing some wins,” Wilson told Foreign Policy, using sports metaphors. “And they don’t have to be big wins, they just have to be wins that people see and tangibly believe that, ‘Once my idea was listened to, it was acted upon,’ and that will build momentum.”

One high-profile proposal calls for those serving in the nuclear force to receive some form of financial incentive. It isn’t yet clear who will receive additional money, but Wilson said it could come in the form of cash bonuses when personnel re-enlist to stay in the nuclear force or additional pay on days in which missileers pull overnight “alert” shifts, in which they leave their headquarters, travel dozens of miles to a missile site, and take elevators underground to man the electronic panels that control the missiles. The general said he must make recommendations on the incentives proposal to James by April 30, but declined to say what his preferences are.

In total, the so-called force improvement plan review led to more than 330 recommendations for the missile force, and all but a handful will either be adopted or receive more research in the future, said Brig. Gen. Michael Fortney, the director of operations at Global Strike Command. The ones that were cast aside typically conflicted with other recommendations. Some personnel asked to wear blue flight suits, for example, but others wanted to stay with the current green ones, so the brass tabled any change. On the flip side, Wilson said it’s likely that the Air Force will soon allow troops working in the missile force to wear some kind of patch on their uniform — a point of pride that was once allowed, but taken away several years ago.

The missile force review went far beyond scrutinizing the job of the missile launch officers, too. Its helicopters squadrons, maintenance units, and security forces all received scrutiny, giving troops in each organization a chance to air longstanding concerns. For example, the security forces who defend the 450 Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles and guard nuclear warheads in missile silos near Malmstrom, Minot, and F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming want new vehicles to respond to threats to missile sites. They say the armored Humvees they use now are dangerous on many of the narrow, treacherous roads they must travel, especially in the winter. Many of the troops would rather use unarmored sport utility vehicles when possible while keeping a smaller fleet of armored vehicles to response when recently installed surveillance cameras spot a potential threat.

Global Strike Command leaders also want a seat at the table in the Pentagon’s internal deliberations over its Joint Light Tactical Vehicle program, which will eventually replace the military’s Humvee fleet, and are interested in wearing the Army’s “Multicam” camouflage uniform pattern, rather than the distinctive “tiger stripe” camouflage the Air Force adopted in 2011, Air Force officials said. Multicam has proven itself effective in Afghanistan, and Wilson said he does not see why it would not be useful to security forces in the wooded environments around missile sites.

“It’s a pretty good uniform, and it’s pretty good at making sure that under different conditions — day, night — I can blend in, versus stand out,” he said. “And it’s pretty durable. I’m OK with it.”

The Air Force is forging ahead with its attempts to improve the nuclear force as it continues to plan for several expensive acquisition programs that will require continued support on Capitol Hill. The plans come at a time when some analysts question whether it’s necessary for the Pentagon to keep three ways to deliver nuclear weapons — bombers, ICBMs, and missiles launched by Navy submarine — more than 20 years after the end of the Cold War. But in a common refrain for the nuclear force, Wilson said it makes sense to keep each l
eg of the “triad” because they all have their strengths and the United States has not had a major world war since the United States dropped nuclear bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

“Now, we can say lots of things changed, but part of the change is we had a new weapon, and people said, ‘Whew, this is like nothing we’ve ever seen before.’ And since then, we haven’t had great power wars between nations since 1945,” Wilson said. “Are we the only reason? Absolutely not. Are we part of the reason? I would say absolutely so.”

The equipment is getting old, though. The Air Force is expected to launch a contract competition this fall for a new long-range strike bomber to replace the aging B-52H, which last came off the assembly line in 1962. Air Force officials have said the new aircraft could cost $550 million per plane, and they want up to 100 of them — putting the overall price tag at $55 billion or more. In the meantime, the Air Force also is planning a variety of upgrades to both it and the B-2 stealth bomber, first unveiled in 1989. The B-52’s bomb bay is being reconfigured to carry smart weapons internally at a cost of $24.6 million and its communications equipment will get a $1.1 billion upgrade to allow it to share information with other aircraft nearby. The B-2, pictured below, will get new avionics and other equipment to ensure that it can continue to attack targets while remaining invisible on radar to enemy forces.

On the ground, the Air Force also is preparing to upgrade its Minuteman ballistic missile arsenal with a new guidance system and the launch facilities with new oxygen generation units and classified printers, said Brig. Gen. Fred Stoss, who oversees weapons requirements for Global Strike Command. At the same time, it also is preparing for new solid rocket motors in the missiles, since the propellant in them eventually loses its usefulness, and planning incremental updates to the ICBM arsenal that will eventually replace the Minuteman III with something called the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent.

“We have to make sure we have an affordable way to make the Minuteman III and its successor out as long as the nation needs the ICBM,” Stoss said. “Some of our studies as we’re looking at it, we’re thinking 75 years or longer for the capability we’re looking to do.”

Wilson said Global Strike Command is not “going to walk by any problem,” and is trying to be as open and transparent as it can to change the culture in the nuclear force going forward. Following the bomber review, he plans a third assessment phase that will analyze headquarters units the same way.

“We’re not trying to hide anything. This was… I didn’t see it coming,” he said, searching for words to describe the cheating scandal. “I wish it hadn’t happened, but I can also tell you that because it has happened now, we’re going to use this. There’s this Robert Frost quote: ‘The only way out is through.’ And we’re going to get through this, and we’re ultimately going to be better and stronger as the result of our efforts here.”

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