Saturday, December 20, 2008

Strong Medicine

General Bob Kehler, the leader of Air Force Space Command, has an interesting take on the recent rash of nuclear inspection failures among his missile wings.

According to Kehler, the string of unsatisfactory performances was "exactly what he expected," as the service works to rebuild its nuclear enterprise.

General Kehler and Space Command Inspector General Col. Scott “Scooter” Gilson, said the failures didn’t surprise either one of them during a year in which nuclear inspections got tougher as the Air Force works to repair its nuclear enterprise.

“We don’t like failures, but failures in this case, in terms of identifying the problems, are part of the fix to the nuclear enterprise. It’s like medicine,” Kehler said.

The general's comments came only two days after the 90th Missile Wing at F.E. Warren AFB, Wyoming became the third ICBM unit to fail a nuclear surety inspection in 2008. Inspectors reportedly found significant discrepancies in the wing's Personnel Reliability Program (PRP); maintenance inspection and documentation procedures, and security standards.

Put another way, the Air Force ICBM force is batting a perfect "zero" on nuclear inspections so far this year. In the post-SALT/START world, all of the nation's land-based nuclear missiles are assigned to three wings: the 90th at Warren; the 341st Missile Wing at Malmstrom AFB, Montana and the 91st Missile Wing at Minot AFB, North Dakota. And, over the past eleven months, all three units have failed their NSI.

To be fair, the Air Force doesn't rate the performance of the Minot unit as unsatisfactory. The wing's failing grade during its January NSI came from the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA), which participated in the evaluation. While agency inspectors faulted the unit's security procedures, that finding was overruled by evaluators from Air Force Space Command, which set the final grade.

The 91st's sister wing at Malmstrom wasn't as lucky. Last month, the 341st Missile Wing received an unsatisfactory rating during its NSI after inspectors found problems in the unit's PRP problem and maintenance complex.

However, the commander of the 341st, Colonel Michael Fortney retained his job, as did the leader of the Minot unit. And, there are no signs of a post-inspection command change at F.E. Warren, although there was some speculation that 90th wing commander, Colonel Michael Morgan, might be in jeopardy.

But, if General Kehler is correct, then more unit failures are almost inevitable, as nuclear-capable units adjust to more demanding evaluation criteria and a revised, "no notice" inspection system. In that environment, the automatic dismissal of wing commanders would only create more confusion and disrupt leadership continuity in some units.

Still, there is are certain flaws in that logic. Despite well-documented problems in Air Force nuclear operations--including a lack of experienced personnel, decades of neglect and less-than-stringent inspections in years past--some units are successfully adapting to the new system, or simply maintaining the high standards expected in the nuclear force. According to Air Force Times, a total of 22 NSIs have been conducted so far this year, with five failures.

Based on those numbers, almost 80% of the units that faced nuclear inspections in 2008 successfully met their test. Those commanders must be wondering how many chances a unit--and its leadership--really deserve.

At some point, the "medicine" will run its course, and accountability will become the preferred treatment for failing units. It worked well enough in the past. In the halcyon days of Strategic Air Command, a failed NSI was a guaranteed career killer for a wing commander and his key subordinates. General Curtis LeMay, the legendary SAC commander, fired more than his share of "wing kings" who failed to measure up.

LeMay would have been appalled by the "touchy-feely" approach utilized in Air Force inspections in recent years. On the other hand, he would certainly applaud the USAF's return to "no notice" evaluations, with the usual caveat. There is no margin for error in nuclear operations, and no tolerance for leaders who can't get the job done.

In other words, Colonels Fortney and Morgan were lucky. In the past (and the not-too-distant future), they'd be packing their bags, the standard punishment for a wing commander who failed his NSI. But, in the current, transition "window," they will remain on the job, and lead their wings through a make-up evaluation.

While it's better than getting fired, don't look for Fortney and Morgan on the next promotion list for Brigadier General. Even the kinder, gentler Air Force has its limits.

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