Change How We Test, Care, Feed Air Force ICBM Crews

Outrage and worry greeted the news that some of the Air Force officers who would launch nuclear missiles were being investigated for drug use. More outrage and worry greeted the news that a substantial number of the crews who would launch nuclear missiles cheated on the written tests they must regularly take. Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James, who has handled the public portions of the crisis with aplomb and apparent effectiveness, told the world the missile crew force faced “systemic problems.” Bob Butterworth, expert on nuclear and space issues and a member of the Breaking Defense Board of Contributors, offers his critique of the Air Force’s management of the force, and more importantly, suggests concrete measures to help fix the problems. His discussion of the relative merits of the written tests as compared to the Missile Procedures Trainer simulator that forces officers to demonstrate they know the procedures and actually execute them is particularly interesting. Which is more important: a written test or a test as close to the real world as one can get? The Editor.

Paper Tests Don’t Simulate Simulators. The test in question is a monthly training test that is treated as a proficiency test. If a missileer scores below 90 percent then he is retrained, retested and returned to duty, all per AFGSC (Air Force Global Strike Command) regulations. The simulator is the more accurate measure of proficiency. Mistakes on the test do not necessarily indicate weaknesses in performance in the simulator, and vice versa.

As one officer with recent command experience explains: “The classroom is where we talk about what we should do on alert, the simulator is where we actually demonstrate what to do. The simulator (Missile Procedures Trainer-MPT) is a high-fidelity launch control center simulator. It is the best way to train and evaluate real-world actions for alert. It consists of a full console and the major communication systems all laid out the same way it is in a launch control center. The instructors can fully simulate the status that may happen on alert — everything from faults with the missiles, failing equipment, security problems, fires, and emergency war order messages from the President directing launch actions.

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“Classroom training is great for discussing why you may receive certain faults and what to do, but the MPT is where we can actually ‘drop’ the status on the crew and watch them perform exactly the way they would on alert. In the MPT, we run through realistic scenarios that show messages sent from the higher authorities if we were to escalate tensions with another nation and launch our weapons. It is a Top Secret environment where we have all the decode documents, classified regulations and technical orders that we would have on alert.”

His view of the relative merits of the test and the simulator? “The classroom just isn’t the same.  We review basic concepts and what we are supposed to do when we receive certain classified messages, but the test is not written to the analysis level. It is held at the knowledge level, which leads to tricky questions, hooks and the need to develop good test taking skills that really don’t translate to MPT and alert performance. Please note, these tests are not impossibly tricky–if you invest the time and study, then you will do just fine I did as a lieutenant and captain, but there are plenty of people who just want to watch movies on alert and don’t want to invest in their missile career–being good at your job takes work!!.”

So let’s do more in the simulator and emphasize analysis in the classroom. “We take one monthly MPT ride and are required to take an annual evaluation in the MPT. We also have three separate classroom training sessions a month: one covers emergency war orders, one covers the code components used to provide nuclear surety and positive control and one class covers unclassified weapon system training. That translates to four hours in the MPT and about 10 classroom hours.  I really think this is out of balance. I would rather our crew members receive two MPT rides a month, two evaluations per year and one day of classroom training that covers concepts and the ‘why’ behind what we do, not the ‘what.’  The MPT is where we can demonstrate the ‘what’ and the ‘why’ all at once.”

Most of the errors on the monthly training tests occur on questions that are intentionally written to be easily misunderstood (double negatives, misleading lead-ins), thereby testing the crew’s ability to take tests but not their mission-related knowledge or understanding. As the training and test are given each month, the instructors foot-stomp the most missed questions prior to the tests, and the high scores are won by people who take the test later in the month (or who have learned to spot the tricky wording).

The big blow up at Minot last fall over “rot in the crew force” blew because the average classroom test score of the Minot crews was lower than that at the other two bases—but it was still passing.  No one mentioned that 100% of the crews passed the EWO evaluations conducted in the simulators.

But missileer crew morale is definitely an issue, one that has been building for years. Missile crews sit in the middle of remote areas, training for a task no American has — or would want to — execute. The country as a whole pays little attention to nuclear issues any more and the mission certainly is not publicly regarded as glamorous. Serving on a missile crew is not considered a fine way to win promotion or to win a medal. So here are six corrective measures that would help recognize the critical job the missile forces perform.

1. Fix broken equipment and deficient facilities. It’s hard to believe your mission is important if you can’t get your broken or worn equipment replaced in timely fashion. Retired Gen. Larry Welch’s review for the Defense Science Board published last April called attention to continuing deficiencies in timely logistics and repair support for the ICBM force and their negative effects on morale.

2. Ensure adequate representation in higher headquarters. Is the number of bomber pilot/navigator officers about equal to the number of ICBM operations officers among the colonels, lieutenant colonels and majors assigned to the nuclear mission areas at the headquarters of the Air Force Global Strike Command, the Air Staff and Secretary of the Air Force Staff, and USSTRATCOM? If not, they should be. There needs to be a defined career path for a senior captain/major leading to squadron command.

3. Return “strategic” to our ICBM organizations. After Strategic Air Command was disestablished, the Strategic Missile Wings and Strategic Missile Squadrons became simply Missile Wings and Missile Squadrons. A missileer’s chain of command on alert is Deputy Combat Crew Commander, Missile Combat Crew Commander, Commander of Strategic Forces Command, President of the United States. That is strategic.

4. Restore competition among the “shooters.” For years — from the early days of the Minuteman missile — the ICBM force held annual Missile Competitions at Vandenberg AFB where there are crew training simulators and silos to conduct force-wide competitions to decide the best of the best. Do something like this again.

5. Restore the Minuteman Education Program. Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James recently applauded the Navy for having master’s degree education program for the SLBM force. Years earlier, SAC established the Minuteman Education Program, which paid for and scheduled class room days for Minuteman Crew members to earn an MBA while assigned to the Minuteman Crew force on their first crew assignment.

6. Feed the crews while they’re on alert. Free meals for the missileers and protective services on alert won’t save them a lot of money but it certainly would boost morale and do something toward reducing envy for air crews who collect temporary duty (TDY) funds.

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