Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Welsh III pauses as he testifies May 8 on Capitol Hill in Washington. Crews with a finger on the trigger of the Air Force's most powerful nuclear missiles are complaining of morale-sapping pressures. (Carolyn Kaster/AP file)
WASHINGTON — Officers with a finger on the trigger of the Air Force’s most powerful nuclear missiles are complaining of a wide array of morale-sapping pressures, according to internal emails obtained by The Associated Press.
The complaints shed fresh light on dissatisfactions roiling this critical arm of the Air Force, an undercurrent that has captured the attention of the service’s leaders.
Key themes among the complaints include working under “poor leadership” and being stuck in “dead-end careers” in nuclear weapons, one email said. The sentiments were expressed privately by members of the 91st Missile Wing at Minot Air Force Base, N.D., in an unpublished study for the Air Force. The complaints also said there was a need for more experienced missile officers, a less arduous work schedule and “leaders who will listen.”
Taken together, the complaints suggest sagging morale in arguably the most sensitive segment of the American military. The 91st at Minot operates 150 intercontinental ballistic missiles — one-third of the entire ICBM force. The missiles stand in underground silos on constant alert for launch within minutes of a presidential order.
In the nuclear missile business, morale is not a trivial matter. Mental state is treated as a vital sign — like physical health, criminal record and technical knowhow — that must be monitored to indicate whether an individual is fit to be trusted with weapons of such destructive power.
The question of morale at Minot coincides with trouble inside the ranks of the 91st. The Associated Press reported on May 8 that 17 launch crew members — representing about 10 percent of the launch crew force — had been taken off duty for remedial training following a poor showing in a key portion of an inspection. The story was based on an April 12 internal Air Force email that said the 91st suffered from “rot” within its ranks, including tolerance of weapons safety rules violations. Air Force leaders told Congress the problem was less about poor performance than about poor attitude.
Last week the Air Force said two additional launch officers at Minot had been sidelined, for a total of 19. AnAir Force spokesman, Lt. Col. Ronald Watrous, said that 10 of the 19 had completed the two-month process of regaining certification. Most of the rest are expected to do so by the end of this month.
The AP obtained a second internal Air Force email describing morale issues at Minot, which were hinted at broadly in the first email. Both notes were written by Lt. Col. Jay Folds, deputy commander of the unit in charge of the 91st’s three missile squadrons at Minot.
The second Folds email, dated March 21, said complaints were registered in a confidential study initiated by the Air Force’s most senior officer, Gen. Mark Welsh, who was considering “solutions to our problems.” The study was done between December 2012 and February 2013 by the Rand Corp., a federally funded think tank that Welsh enlisted to study workforce issues inside the three missile wings, including the one at Minot.
The email briefly summarized complaints at Minot; it did not refer to what people at the other two missile wings — at F.E. Warren Air Force Base, Wyo., and Malmstrom Air Force Base, Mont. — told the researchers.
The Air Force confirmed to the AP that Folds and his immediate superior, Col. Bryan Haderlie, are leaving their posts, but Watrous, spokesman for the Air Force Global Strike Command, said both are being moved in a “normal rotation.”
In a telephone interview about the Rand study and the Folds emails, Maj. Gen. Michael J. Carey, who as commander of the 20th Air Force is responsible for all three missile wings, acknowledged a degree of discontent at Minot but said more study is required before he and Welsh can pinpoint all the dimensions of the issue.
Asked about the complaints about weak leadership, Carey said on May 31, “I certainly take it to heart.”
Carey, who was briefed on Rand’s findings on March 20, said that despite the various complaints, morale at Minot is “not bad.” He said that on a recent visit to the 91st he found missile crews optimistic and upbeat.
“They are not unhappy,” he said. Carey said some complaints are rooted in a lack of communication from higher headquarters about plans for modernizing the nuclear force even as the Air Force faces tighter budgets.
Carey said he could not provide a copy of Rand’s findings because they have not yet been presented to Welsh. The study was based on interviews with missile launch officers as well as enlisted airmen who support that work.
In the earlier email obtained by the AP, Folds said there was “such rot” within the force that launch officers tolerated weapons safety rule violations, possible violations of missile launch codes and other failings deemed unacceptable. The AP story based on that email triggered strong responses from some in Congress, including Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., who wondered aloud what lay behind the turmoil inside the missile force.
Part of the answer, in the view of many experts, is the shrinking role and size of the U.S. nuclear force and, consequently, a reduced sense of purpose among launch crews who do 24-hour shifts in control centers buried deep below ground.
The U.S. has 450 deployed ICBMs, down from about 1,000 at the end of the Cold War, and current projections call for only 420 within five years. Some have argued for eliminating the missiles altogether.
Hans Kristensen, a nuclear weapons expert at the Federation of American Scientists, said that ICBM launch crew officers have told him over a period of years that morale has been on the decline.
“You can’t take away the fact that the mission they sit and wait for” — to launch a nuclear attack — “is very unlikely to ever happen,” Kristensen said. “That affects career choices and morale because they talk to their other Air Force buddies who come home after flying B-52s over Afghanistan or Iraq and it’s very exciting to be in that part of the Air Force” while the ICBM launch crews “sit in a hole in the Midwest and wait for nothing.”
A Pentagon advisory panel report two years ago cited multiple aspects of a morale problem within the nuclearforce. It said the Air Force’s traditional emphasis on fighter and bomber operations leaves nuclear officers feeling marginalized, all the more because their work is out of public view and veiled in secrecy.
“They perceive a lack of knowledge of and respect for their mission from within the larger Air Force,” the panel reported.
Robert L. Goldich, a military affairs expert formerly with the Congressional Research Service, said theAir Force faces a difficult task in attracting and keeping high-quality officers to fill the missile launch crew positions.
“They can of course assign new second lieutenants involuntarily, as any service does, but that wouldn’t exactly create high esprit de corps in a component of the Air Force that just seems less and less relevant — and, importantly, is virtually unknown to the American public,” Goldich said in an email exchange.