AP Interview: AF should empower young nuke leaders

ROBERT BURNS
AP National Security Writer

MINOT AIR FORCE BASE, N.D. (AP) — The key to improving morale in the Air Force’s nuclear missile corps is to put more responsibility in the hands of junior officers and enlisted airmen, the commander of the missile corps said Wednesday.

In an Associated Press interview at Minot Air Force Base, which operates one-third of the nation’s 450 Minuteman 3 intercontinental ballistic missiles, Maj. Gen. Jack Weinstein said that in addition to devoting more resources to the mission, he is pushing to empower those who maintain, operate and secure the missiles.

“They were being micromanaged,” he said.

Their morale has suffered, Weinstein said, in part because they are told their work is important but they are not permitted to make even basic decisions about how to perform it. He said that over time this has tended to detract from their sense of purpose.

He said he first realized the extent of this problem last fall when he took command of the intercontinental ballistic missile force, the 20th Air Force. While visiting a missile crew in the field, he learned that the decision to permit a “camper alert team,” or temporary security force, to leave a missile launch facility after resolution of whatever security issue had prompted the team’s deployment, could only be made by a squadron commander, a lieutenant colonel, back at the home base rather than by the officer in the missile field.

This, he said, showed him that “we had elevated decisions to an unhealthy level.” He said that when he was a lieutenant and a Minuteman 3 missile launch crew officer he was allowed to make the kind of decision that would release the “camper alert team.”

“The best way to produce leaders of the future is to make sure that when they are junior you properly educate and train them and you let them make decisions,” he said.

Not all ICBM commanders appear to share Weinstein’s view that the force has been micromanaged.

Col. Robert Vercher, who stepped down Tuesday as commander of the 91st Missile Wing at Minot, said in an AP interview shortly before his departure that tight control of the nuclear mission is necessary to maintain public confidence in the Air Force’s nuclear stewardship.

“You might call it micromanagement, but I would call it oversight — proper oversight,” Vercher said.

“When I hear the word ‘micromanagement’ I go, ‘It depends.’ How much do you want your tax return micromanaged by your accountant? Exquisitely or just kind of haphazardly?” Vercher said.

Weinstein was in Minot for a change-of-command ceremony at the 91st Missile Wing, which operates 150 Minuteman 3 missiles that are in launch-ready status in underground silos spread across 8,500 square miles in the northwestern corner of North Dakota.

At Tuesday’s ceremony, Col. Michael Lutton took command, succeeding Vercher, whose two years in charge here included a poor showing by the 91st on a nuclear inspection in March 2013. That setback led to the unprecedented sidelining of 19 missile launch control officers for performance and attitude problems.

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

In his formal remarks at Tuesday’s ceremony, Weinstein said it was time to “fundamentally change the culture” in an ICBM force that has changed relatively little during its 50-plus years of existence.

He said he thinks missile crew members believe in what they are doing and want to perform well.

“The problem they had was they weren’t allowed to do the mission,” he said, adding, “When you don’t allow them to do that, then all of a sudden you have a morale problem.”

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