Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God: the Low Level Burdens of High Level Reform in the Air Force ICBM Community

Last January, scandal rocked the US Air Force ICBM community.  Nearly 100 missile officers were implicated in a test cheating ring at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana, triggering the 3-star commander of US nuclear missile forces to direct an official inquiry (Command Directed Investigation, or CDI).  The cheating issue surfaced incidental to a drug investigation implicating officers across the service, including some entrusted with nuclear weapons.  This is just the latest stumble in a community troubled for several years.  In 2008, the service’s Chief of Staff and Secretary were sacked after the inadvertent transport of nuclear warheads. Just last year, alarm bells were raised when internal emails reflected a state of “rot” among missile crews at Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota. 

Writing about this subject after the latest scandal broke, I urged bold action.  A few months later, responding to the pervasive collapse of integrity at Malmstrom, the Air Force sacked nine commanders from squadron and group posts and moved toward disciplinary actions against officers directly involved.  It also accepted the resignation of Malmstrom’s wing commander. It seemed bold action might finally materialize. 

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The magnitude of the Malmstrom firings signaled recognition of the severity of the problem, and the focus on command-level accountability reflected acknowledgement of a leadership problem rather than simple misconduct by junior officers. The emplacement of a new cadre of senior leaders at Malmstrom – none of whom have ever commanded a missile squadron – could be a sign that the Air Force and Global Strike Command (AFGSC) are ready to embrace fresh thinking.

But upon closer inspection, this looks like another gambit to show boldness while resisting reform. Fundamental questions lurk, two of which are particularly important.

1. If the USAF believes this fiasco was a result of poor leadership, does this response make sense?

It seems a stretch to think that all nine of the squadron and group commanders at Malmstrom were equally culpable in perpetuating a failed culture.  In fact, the investigative record shows some commanders suspected cheating was happening while others were shocked by it.  If that’s the case, both groups might be culpable for different reasons, and that’s an important distinction that should be openly embraced.  After all, a large component in leadership is the exercise of fairness, and collective responsibility exercised indiscriminately is a betrayal of that principle.  It’s also fair to ask whether the previous Malmstrom commanders should have also been disciplined.  Most of the cheating done in this case was done by Lieutenants in their first assignments, many with less than two years in the Air Force.  This makes it quite unlikely they were pioneers in the field of exam cheating; in all likelihood, they fell into the trap of adopting the prevailing norms they encountered upon reaching their respective squadrons, and these norms don’t get entrenched enough to ensnare otherwise moral officers under the tenure of a single commander.  They take root over the course of years. 

Not long ago, a recently graduated squadron commander from F.E. Warren Air Force Base wrote an Op-Ed in which she claimed morale was high in the missile community.  Her words painted a picture of a “Pleasantville” community, with troops enjoying gourmet cooking and happily going about their jobs.  This is at odds with the findings of the CDI and prevailing assessments of the ICBM force both official and unofficial.  It’s fair to ask whether this commander was out of touch, and whether the Air Force’s response should have expanded to consider whether predecessors of the fired Malmstrom cadre shared her inaccurately rosy view.

Colonel Rob Stanley, former commander of Malmstrom’s 341st Missile Wing

In a sense, the service acknowledges differing levels of culpability by accepting the resignation of the wing commander – allowing him to depart his post gracefully – while forcibly removing his subordinates. Why this obvious ambivalence?  Was Colonel Rob Stanley just as much to blame as his subordinate commanders?  If so, he should have been fired rather than being permitted to quit.  Was he less blameworthy than his subordinates?  If so, maybe he shouldn’t have been removed at all.  After all, he was considered the prominent “big thinker” in the ICBM community before this incident.  In a note of painful irony, Stanley’s Air War College thesis was cited in the CDI eventually used to justify his removal from command. It might be that Stanley was the best hope the community had for the kind of cultural rebuilding effort necessary to extricate it from the morass of the last decade.

But assuming for a moment Stanley was a pivotal figure in the entrenchment of a culture of cheating at Malmstrom, who put him in that position?  How was he selected?  What were his qualifications?  Who appointed his subordinate commanders?  Did he report any problems in the wing to higher headquarters before the recent problems emerged?  If so, how were his concerns addressed?  Was his wing appropriately resourced?  Were the staffs at 20th Air Force and AFGSC responsive to issues he identified?

General Mark Welsh, Air Force Chief of Staff

These questions point to leadership above wing level. Answers to them are being actively resisted. The Air Force seems desperate to construe recent events as a “Malmstrom problem” and to tie off the problem by limiting accountability to one wing.  This is at odds with the recommendations of the CDI as well as a clear pattern of decline stretching back at least seven years and brought into full relief at Minot less than a year ago.  Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James claims that there is no evidence of cheating on tests in the ICBM community beyond Malmstrom, but her assertion has been refuted by a retired officer familiar with the community, and sources inside the ICBM force echo the notion that test cooperation has been pervasive and well-known across the community for as long as anyone can remember.

If James and Chief of Staff General Mark Welsh are truly unaware that this tendency exists elsewhere, it could make them guilty of the same obliviousness upon which they based the firings at Malmstrom.  If they are generally aware cheating is more pervasive and are choosing not to acknowledge it, the potential exists for this systemic failure to persist.  It might be that James and Welsh are reticent to acknowledge a community-wide crisis because to do so would be admitting the Air Force is once again failing at the nuclear mission despite having created a new command to deal with the problem just a few years ago.  Given the realities of risk aversion, they might also be looking for a way to respond that doesn’t necessitate firing the generals upon which they rely to conduct the mission.  But this debacle is inescapably about leadership, so it’s fair to ask whether the bigger risk might be leaving in command generals who helped create and cultivate the current problem.

The second question raised by the Air Force response: 

2. Does the ICBM community have a special integrity problem, or is it reflecting the reality of the Air Force? 

In communicating the Air Force’s way forward in the wake of the Malmstrom firings, Secretary James emphasized the importance of a focus on core values, touting a “plan” that will include a stand-down “Wingman Day,” evaluation of curriculum at formal education courses and the launch of something called a “core values resource center” on the Air Force’s website.  Putting aside for a moment the conflation of Wingman Day (which is about mutual support) and integrity (which is about individual conduct), it seems evident James believes the Malmstrom incident reflects a widespread integrity problem.  But in framing the issue this way, James invites broader and more penetrating questions about the service’s commitment to its most important core value.

75 of the 98 offenders at Malmstrom are Lieutenants.  This means less than four years ago, they passed muster at a commissioning source and took an oath of office that the Air Force was certain they would uphold.  Within a short space of time, they abandoned the integrity they had necessarily demonstrated to be eligible for that oath.  This makes them failures in an important way.  But it’s not the whole story or even the most important chapter. 

What made them abandon their integrity?  The CDI indicates they cheated because they felt immense pressure to register perfect scores on every proficiency exam or suffer grave career consequences.  They perceived a choice between test perfection and career suicide, and encountered an environment where many if not most officers were choosing the former to avoid the latter.  Moreover, it was widely known that this was the case, and that the tests in question were considered of minimal value in actual proficiency. This led, over time, to a lack of respect for the tests themselves and a corresponding decline in the seriousness with which missileers approached them.

Given these realities, it’s fair to conclude key leaders were either wildly out of touch with the realities of the ICBM career field or looking the other way to avoid confronting a deeper cultural issue.  In other words, leaders themselves showed a lack of integrity by failing to confront the cheating dilemma, allowing it to fester and grow until it seemed like the norm to newly arriving officers still impressionable and deferential to the habits of senior officers.  This would explain why so many junior officers, so recently given the rebuttable presumption of honor turned away from that honor so readily. 

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This feels like the latest replay of an old but oft-repeated leadership failure: expecting qualities in subordinates that the leader does not exhibit.  Alternatively, we could be witnessing a fundamental misapprehension of how integrity works and how it doesn’t.  A value system only works when the assumptions upon which it is based remain valid.  When integrity was enshrined as a core value, the Air Force did not foresee that a warped career incentive system would develop, placing individuals on the horns of a perpetual dilemma where they would have to choose between behaving honestly and preserving their professional success.  For integrity to remain operative in service culture, exercising it must bring success rather than setback.  In other words, values and mission must align, not diverge.  If Air Force senior leaders don’t see the divergence, it’s fair to ask if they’re properly diagnosing the problem.  If they do see it, it’s fair to question whether they can expect integrity in others when they’re not exhibiting it in their own behavior.

Perhaps the most critical finding in the command investigation focused on manning in ICBM squadrons.  The report paints a grim picture of inexperienced units manned almost exclusively by first-assignment officers.  This leaves commanders unable to provide effective supervision, especially given the geographic dispersion of the roughly 50 missile sites for which each squadron commander is responsible.  It’s also a persistent and well-known problem that has been identified to staffs repeatedly over the past several years,but hasn’t been remedied.

Secretary James conducts a press briefing with Lt. Gen Stephen Wilson, commander of Air Force Global Strike Command

Resource managers have done nothing to help commanders, citing Air Force Personnel Center and Headquarters Air Force limitations. Just as in other communities, this left ICBM squadrons without of a bona fide supervisory system. Yet, as the Air Force responded officially to this latest failure, Secretary James cited commanders’ failures to provide proper oversight as the reason for their removals. To fire commanders for failing to do something they were unable to do is to pretend they were able to do that thing without the necessary resources. This is firing without proper cause, which constitutes an abuse of power.

A squadron – any squadron – needs mid-level supervisors no less than a firefighter needs water.  Pretending a commander can do her job without the appropriate manning to get it done is fundamentally dishonest, and calls into question whether the Air Force has an institutional integrity problem.  Having written recently in several other articles about the intellectual dishonesty of setting the conditions for X while expecting Y, I’ve received a flood of responses from airmen who believe integrity is misapprehended at the top of the organization, and that abandonment of it at the top is leading to abandonment of it throughout.

When these two questions are fused, a third question takes form:

3. Has the Air Force addressed the problem, or just treated the symptoms (again)?

A few years ago, the service confronted the fact that it had let the nuclear community atrophy. This was nothing short of an existential threat.  In response, the service created a new command, stood up new staffs, fired a bunch of people, and assured everyone it had put itself on a new path.  Yet, in a short space of time, the ICBM community is once again in crisis. 

This raises concern that the actions taken to reinvigorate the nuclear community did not drive deep enough to address cultural maladies.  The “Force Improvement Program” recently conducted by Lieutenant General Wilson, commander of AFGSC, unearthed some 400 action items in need of command-wide attention.  That there could be this many issues to correct this many years after what was hailed as a renewal of the community is troubling, and says a lot about the efficacy of previous efforts.  At the time, many criticize the program as a show of political force designed to steel the service against its external critics but neglectful of the need to expose and deal with the ugly underpinnings of manifested failures.  Given that context, there are three ways to read this most recent Air Force response.  Each corresponds to a particular strategy driving Air Force actions.

Decapitation Theory. “If this is a problem of poor leadership, let’s cut off the head to paralyze the whole problem.”  Some of the facts are consistent with such a strategy, but some aren’t.  Not all of the leaders who created and cultivated the Malmstrom mess were fired, and the generals atop the chain of command were spared.  Given that the Malmstrom commanders were replaced by an inexperienced cadre likely to be tough on subordinates and deferential to superiors – a prescription for re-making a base in the higher headquarters’ image – it’s fair to theorize that a decapitation or paralysis strategy animated the mass firings rather than a careful review of individual culpability. Can a community ailing from lost integrity be rebuilt around an approach that sacrifices facts for strategic simplicity in this way? 

Avoidance Theory.  “Rather than grapple with underlying problems, which involves embracing new ways of doing business, let’s avoid that risk by making enough of a show to satisfy stakeholders without really drilling down.”  Again, some facts are consistent with this, like failing to retain Colonel Stanley, failing to hire well-regarded former commanders from Minot who had demonstrated the ability to recover from a similar crisis, and sidestepping CDI recommendations that would have driven leadership changes above wing level.  When risk aversion is the dominant mode, executives are disinclined to take chances on new people in key senior positions.  But some facts of this scenario are inconsistent with risk aversion, like placing in command at a wounded base nine new commanders, not a single one of whom had ever previously commanded a missile squadron.

Deference Theory.  “Since we don’t really know what to do, let’s listen to the people we’ve been trusting with this mission . . . who insist that a few firings and some disciplinary actions will be enough.”  In this strategy, executives bend to the influence of those most experienced in the business: the generals.  Some facts are consistent with this strategy, like allowing inexperienced commanders to exclusively comprise the new Malmstrom leadership team based on expert recommendation.  Leaving good commanders on the bench could also be explained by deference to experts.  The only commander in the ICBM community known to correctly assess the community as having issues of systemic rot is a former squadron and deputy group commander who helped rebuild Minot after last year’s failures.  That officer is on a non-operational assignment and is headed for a staff tour rather than command, ostensibly because that’s the desire of the key generals in AFGSC.  Deference theory also explains how rampant cheating could have escaped Air Force notice for so long, discovered only after an unrelated drug investigation inadvertently unearthed the issues.  Still, if deference to experts is driving the response, Secretary James’ implication of a service-wide integrity issue does not align . . . in fact, it reflects growing distrust between executives atop the Air Force and the airmen they’re charged to lead.

None of these theories perfectly captures the Malmstrom bloodbath, though avoidance may come closest to making comprehensive sense.  One idea that explains the Air Force actions and ties together each of these theories is the concept of self-preservation.  When confronted with issues in the nuclear community, the Air Force perceives a choice between acting in its own preservation at the institutional level, which drives politically expedient behavior designed to save face, or acting to expose and address root causes of observed dysfunction, which could be politically embarrassing and involve a loss of face. Given this choice, the service has historically chosen to act in political self-preservation and save face. Unfortunately, this won’t solve the very real organizational, structural, and systemic problems that have taken root in the soil of the ICBM force. In fact, it tends to transfer the burden of reforms even more fully onto the backs of low-level operators, since protecting institutional interests leads invariably to more micromanagement 

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Good officers have been made bad in this community.  They’ve cheated despite considerable evidence predicting just the opposite.  They’ve done that because they were put in a position where they felt cheating was the only way they could succeed on the terms set by the system.  This indicates a structural and systemic dysfunction requiring much more holistic treatment than so far undertaken.  This isn’t a defense of the cheaters, who must face the music even if it means being unfortunate casualties of having joined a troubled community at the wrong time and fallen prey to immoral norms.  But it demonstrates punishing them won’t be enough to prevent recurrence. In fact, they alone are uniquely postured to understand the culture to which they fell prey.

By the same logic, firing a few commanders may have been necessary, but it will not be sufficient. A risk-averse, political solution is not going to solve this problem.  Unless the roots of the ICBM meltdown are found and pulled out, the Air Force will be back in crisis again in a short space of time, grappling with the same issues.  The entire ICBM community is suffering from rot.  It needs a new focus, new leaders at the strategic level, and a renewal of the resource models and readiness regimens that made it quietly successful for decades.  Most of all, it needs enough people with the right rank and experience to properly govern itself.

Reading the CDI and discussing this situation with people inside the community, I had two reactions.  As a recently retired airman, I found myself troubled that the under-resourcing of squadrons in the Air Force is pervasive.  Without enough people and the proper support, excellence is beyond reach.  But as an American, I had a much more alarmed reaction: we are apparently under-resourcing and improperly supervising the handling of nuclear weapons.  This is unacceptable.  Changing out commanders without providing proper resources is akin to rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic, except that the iceberg in this analogy could carry consequences too terrible to fathom.  It’s time for the political dithering to stop and the real remedies to start.  

Strategic Air Command’s motto for decades encapsulated an elegantly simple yet expansive idea: “peace is our profession.” General Curtis LeMay understood that the best way to make sure our nuclear weapons would never be necessary was to make sure we and our enemies were completely confident that we could and would use them if necessary.  This critical but simple mission became a rallying cry around which a formidable command was built — one that took care of people in all of the relevant ways, so they could take care of the mission.  

Today, some missileers have taken to calling themselves as “sinners in the hands of an angry God.”  They’re not fearlessly facing the world with checklist and key in-hand so much as they’re defensively fighting off their own chain of command, struggling for career survival and starving for a deeper meaning to inspire their work. Such a drastic decline in morale, pride, and culture cannot be placed at the doorstep of one commander or one cohort of commanders.  It is a result of systemic neglect, and must be reversed with systemic corrections.

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