"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.
Follow Robert Burns on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/robertburnsAP
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