Air Force Denial from the Top: Communication or Propaganda?


Late last year, as rampant test fraud unfolded within the Air Force ICBM community, the service sent its chief press agent to refute media assertions of problems in the nuclear crew force.

Accountability is important.  It sets the tone and establishes the operating standard for an organization. The Air Force is currently in the process of exercising accountability by firing nearly a dozen commanders while preparing to discipline scores more in the wake of an integrity scandal in the ICBM community.  The scandal is the latest and most convincing evidence of a widespread morale problem in the missile force.

As Headquarters Air Force casts about for people and agencies potentially responsible for the deepening ICBM crisis, it should consider taking a long, hard look in the mirror.  In the same way commanders at Malmstrom Air Force Base have been held to account for hermetically sealing themselves into a bubble of denial concerning the conduct of the crews, Air Force leaders should be held to account for indulging the same brand of denial at the departmental level. 

Last November, Robert Burns of the Associated Press documented burnout in the ICBM force in a story supported by an unpublished RAND study.  Not long after the story was published, Brigadier General Les Kodlick, the Air Force’s chief publicist, forcefully refuted Burns’ study and attacked Burns’ credibility. Had Kodlick turned out to be correct, he’d be hailed as a prescient spokesperson quelling uncertainty with an on-point assessment.  But he was dead wrong, which makes him look more like a propagandist. 

Kodlick is set to retire in barely a month’s time, but the service headquarters – on behalf of which he delivered his incorrect message – should be held accountable for having gotten it wrong.  In knocking down the point Burns raised without meaningfully exploring or inviting others to process or debate it, Air Force officials obscured the nature of a corrosive problem involving the nation’s nuclear armament and the people charged with managing and manning it.  This arguably allowed the problem to achieve more depth and severity.  It also gave running room to misguided institutional apologists motivated to show their rhetorical alignment.  But if wasn’t clear then that Kodlick and the Air Force he represented were missing the boat on the subject of missile force morale (and many would say it was), it has since become painfully clear.

The Air Force missile community has a morale problem.  This has been true for a while, and was true when the RAND study was conducted and its many descendants were published.  A credible commander at Minot Air Force Base observed “rot” in the crew force after a failed inspection earlier in 2013.  Now, 98 officers from Malmstrom Air Force Base are charged with cheating on formal tests.  Nearly a dozen commanders have been sacked or resigned at two different missile bases.  The commander of all ICBM forces has directed an investigation that has in turn revealed inappropriate mission pressures and inadequate manning in missile squadrons.  A command-wide improvement initiative has reportedly enumerated some 400 items acutely in need of attention.  The Secretary of the Air Force has been obliged to address this issue in the national press. The assertion of a morale problem made by Burns last November, minimized by Kodlick at the time, now looks to be clearly supported by available evidence.  This leaves Big Blue red-faced, having played the media denial card one too many times.

Any time the corporate choice is to refute the thesis of a media account, credibility becomes centrally important.  A non-expert is rarely trumped by another non-expert on matters such at these.  Yet the Air Force trotted out Kodlick amid a crisis within the ICBM community to make proclamations concerning a command to which he didn’t belong and concerning technical matters about which he had no direct experience. In retrospect, knocking down a reporter’s interpretation of a RAND study concerning morale and troop competence seems like a reach beyond the grasp of an officer who spent just two of his thirty years of service commanding airmen.   While General Kodlick is entitled to the rebuttable presumption of honor, he’s not entitled to the presumption of operational expertise.

So why did the Air Force send a public affairs leader to tell the story of its ICBM crisis? Shouldn’t it instead be sending to tell this story commanders with experience in the field and the power to actually do something about the systemic conditions observed and disputed? It seems reasonable to expect this.  Not only because such individuals are likely to have their assessments taken more seriously by audiences who know they have a direct professional stake in the matters about which they communicate, but because commanders promise at least the potential of issue credibility.  In employing a press agent — albeit an esteemed one with enough rank and media savvy to lend a veneer of seriousness — to conduct this argument, the Air Force validated the theory that it prefers a political approach to contending with the issues in the ICBM corps rather than an approach that drills down into the issue with the kind of openness and authenticity necessary to get it back on track.

In other words, General Kodlick’s November refutation was further evidence of the power of denial. The Air Force was not yet ready at that time to embrace the nature and magnitude of the problem, and was therefore not yet on the path to a strong solution.  It chose instead to send its best media performer to try and tamp down a reporter.  Have recent events and reports done anything to change impulses like this one?  Has the recent scandal burnt through denial and unlocked recognition that deeply rooted problems exist in the ICBM force?  Time will tell, but in the first instance, denial looks to be comfortably entrenched.

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