MINOT AIR FORCE BASE, N.D. — The nuclear missiles hidden in plain view across the prairies of northwest North Dakota reveal one reason why trouble keeps finding the nuclear Air Force. The "Big Sticks," as some call the 60-foot-tall Minuteman 3 missiles, are just plain old.
The Air Force asserts with pride that the missile system, more than 40 years old and designed during the Cold War to counter the now-defunct Soviet Union, is safe and secure. None has ever been used in combat or launched accidentally.
But it also admits to fraying at the edges: time-worn command posts, corroded launch silos, failing support equipment and an emergency-response helicopter fleet so antiquated that a replacement was deemed "critical" years ago.
The Minuteman is no ordinary weapon. The business end of the missile can deliver mass destruction across the globe as quickly as you could have a pizza delivered to your doorstep.
But even as the Minuteman has been updated over the years and remains ready for launch on short notice, the items that support it have grown old. That partly explains why missile corps morale has sagged and discipline has sometimes faltered, as revealed in a series of Associated Press reports documenting leadership, training, disciplinary and other problems in the ICBM force that has prompted worry at the highest levels of the Pentagon.
The airmen who operate, maintain and guard the Minuteman force at bases in North Dakota, Montana and Wyoming came to recognize a gap between the Air Force's claim that the nuclear mission is "Job 1" and its willingness to invest in it.
"One of the reasons for the low morale is that the nuclear forces feel unimportant, and they are often treated as such, very openly," says Michelle Spencer, a defense consultant in Alabama who led a nuclear forces study for the Air Force published in 2012. She said in an interview the airmen — they're called Missileers — became disillusioned by an obvious but unacknowledged lack of interest in nuclear priorities among the most senior Air Force leaders.
Spencer's study found that Air Force leaders were "cynical about the nuclear mission, its future and its true — versus publicly stated — priority to the Air Force." Several key leadership posts have since changed hands, and while Spencer says she sees important improvements, she's worried about the Air Force's commitment to getting the nuclear forces what they need.
This is no surprise to those responsible for nuclear weapons policy. An independent advisory group, in a report to the Pentagon last year, minced no words. It said the Air Force must show a "believable commitment" to modernizing the force.
"If the practice continues to be to demand that the troops compensate for manpower and skill shortfalls, operate in inferior facilities and perform with failing support equipment, there is high risk of failure" to meet the demands of the mission, it said.
Robert Goldich, a former defense analyst at the Congressional Research Service, said the ICBM force for years got "the short end of the stick" on personnel and resources.
"I honestly don't think it's much more complicated than that," he said. "When that happened, people lost sight of how incredibly rigorous you've got to be to ensure quality control when nuclear weapons are involved."
That may be changing. Air Force leaders are making a fresh push to fix things.
When Deborah Lee James became Air Force secretary, its top civilian official, in December, she quickly made her way to each of the three ICBM bases and came away with a conviction that rhetoric was not matched by resources.
"One thing I discovered is we didn't always put our money where our mouth is when it comes to saying this is the No. 1 mission," James told reporters June 30 during a return visit to F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming.
James says the fixes will require money — and a lot more. They will take more people and a major attitude adjustment.
"I happen to think the top thing that really drives an airman is feeling like they're making a difference ... protecting America," she said earlier in June. Missileers ought to feel that way, she said, but she is not convinced they do. "And so, over time, we've got to change that around."
James said the Air Force will find $50 million in this year's budget to make urgent fixes, and will invest an additional $350 million in improvements over the coming five years. Even that, she said, is unlikely to be enough and more funds will be sought.
Her words are resonating with some, including Maj. Steve Gorman, a maintenance operations squadron commander at Minot. He already is seeing signs of change. He points to a recent decision to add 13 new maintenance positions here.
"That's a huge thing for us," Gorman said.
Since its initial deployment in 1970, the Minuteman 3 missile itself has been upgraded in all its main components. But much of the rest of the system that keeps the weapon viable and secure has fallen on hard times.
One example is the Huey helicopter fleet, which escorts road convoys that move Minuteman missiles, warheads and other key components. It also moves armed security forces into the missile fields in an emergency, even though it's too slow, too small, too vulnerable to attack and cannot fly sufficient distances.
It's also old — Vietnam War old.
The seven Hueys flown daily at Minot were built in 1969. The yearly cost of keeping them running has more than doubled over the past four years, according to Air Force statistics — from $12.9 million in 2010 to $27.8 million last year.
"Obviously we need a new helicopter, based on the mission," said Maj. Gen. Jack Weinstein, who as commander of 20th Air Force is responsible for the operation, maintenance and security of the full fleet of Minuteman missiles.
That's what the Air Force has been saying since at least 2006. A 2008 Air Force study cited a "critical need" to replace the Hueys "to mitigate missile field security vulnerabilities" and said this need had been identified two years earlier.
In an Associated Press interview June 25 while visiting Minot, Weinstein said he was trying to persuade his superiors to buy a new fleet of more capable helicopters, but he said it was unclear whether that would happen before 2020.
Weinstein is more optimistic about other opportunities to fix his missile corps. He is implementing a "force improvement program" that was developed from hundreds of recommendations by rank-and-file ICBM force members. It is intended to begin erasing the perception that the nuclear mission is not a top priority, and to give the nuclear missile corps more people, money, equipment, training, educational opportunities and financial incentives.
Lt. Col. Brian Young, deputy commander of the 91st Maintenance Group at Minot, said he senses a turning point as top brass reach out to enlisted airmen and non-commissioned officers to solicit ideas about how to fix the force.
"This feels completely different than any initiative I've been associated with in my 22 years" in the Air Force, he said.
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