I have a new column up at Foreign Policy (“Death Wears Bunny Slippers”) considering this recent story at the Air Force has suspended 17 ICBM launch officers are Minot Air Force Base and initiated proceedings against another.

The column is largely an act of media criticism.  After several Air Force mishaps relating to the handling of nuclear weapons systems came to light in 2007 and 2008, many of us began to argue that declining competence in the nuclear field was the inevitable result of the declining mission for nuclear-armed ICBMs and bombers.

What is interesting about the AP story about the disciplinary actions at Minot is that it represents an attempt to reframe that argument, blaming Global Zero and other arms control efforts for the loss of focus.  As I note in the piece, the timeline of mishaps and disarmament talk simply doesn’t support such an inference. The increase in disarmament talk is, like the increase in mishaps, the effect of the declining utility of these systems.

Having said that, I wanted to explore the relationship between readiness and reporting in a way that I couldn’t fit in the column.

On one hand, the poor performance of the unit does seem to be an example of the sort of problems identified in the Raaberg, Peyer, Donald, Schlesinger and Welch reports.  The Deputy Commander of the 91OG called it “rot” — a metaphor that conveys a systemic problem.

On the other hand, this case is different for the others in an important way.  The incidents in 2006 and 2007 each came light in a manner that reflected poorly on the Air Force. The Air Force did not discover the mistaken 2006 transfer of Minuteman III components until 2008! One might say the Air Force stumbled on to both incidents.

In this case, however, the disciplinary action against the personnel at Minot arose from tougher inspection procedures created in response to past failures.  In 2009 — the first year of the tougher inspections — the Air Force handed out 3 “unsatisfactory” grades on Operational Readiness Inspections.  The Air Force had only given four such grades in the preceding decade.  The three unsatisfactory grades did not represent a sudden one-year decline in operational readiness; they are a statistical artifact of different (and tougher) reporting requirements.

There is truth to the Air Force’s defense that tougher inspections mean more units will receive lower scores, but this should result in higher readiness overall.

SEC. DONLEY: Mr. Chairman, let me assure you that I am confident in the Air Force’s ability to maintain a safe and secure nuclear deterrent. The circumstances that you referred to some years ago are very much personally known to me, as it was the proximate cause for my arrival in the Air Force in 2008. [Donley is referring to Secretary Gates's decision to fire the Secretary of the Air Force and the Air Force Chief of Staff in response to two nuclear weapons-related mishaps. Ed.] And we have made substantial progress in restoring the confidence, I think, of our entire DOD and congressional leadership in the Air Force’s management of this important responsibility. It is a number one responsibility for our Air Force that we take very, very seriously.

As part of the changes made after this period that you referred to earlier in the 2008 and ’09 period, we substantially strengthened the inspection process. And what you’re seeing and hearing reported in the article you referenced represents a stronger inspection process that has been put in place.

I’ll let the chief amplify on this particular set at the unit involved, but generally, the inspection was satisfactory. But it was rated marginal in one area in particular, and this is an area where the group commander is following up after the inspection to make sure that the officers involved are focused as they need to be on all the details of their mission, and that they have appropriate focus exactly where it needs to be. So we support commanders following up on inspections with those actions that they think are necessary to maintain the highest professional standards for this work.

[snip]

SEC. DONLEY: First of all, we need to remember that these are lieutenants by and large. They — some of them can be new to the Air Force; they’re within their first few years. So the training process that we have for the nuclear mission is — has the highest standards but needs to be reinforced continually — every day, every week, every month — throughout the year, as there are new people coming in to the system. So the command responsibility to maintain visibility on this and to ride herd on young officers with this awesome responsibility is something — is something that we support. And in this instance the commander stepped in, said these people need refresher training. And so he took them offline to do that. And that is an appropriate command response.

[snip]

SEC. DONLEY: Senator, thank you. If I could make one comment on that, back to the missile incident — just a brief bit of context. The inspection that was conducted actually has 22 graded areas. The wing was rated excellent in 14 of those 22 and satisfactory in all but one of the others. And that one was an crew operations. They received a marginal rating, which is a passing score but clearly a flag to the leadership of the wing.

As a result of that, the group commander, the wing commander — who are both excellent officers, by the way, and excellent officers and doing exactly what I expect them to do — they followed up with additional testing, additional –

SEN. SHELBY: You’re talking about Colonel Vercher?

SEC. DONLEY: — I’m talking about Colonel Robert Vercher, yes, sir — to make sure that they didn’t have an issue they needed to deal with aggressively.

And as a result of that review, they decided that there was more of an attitude problem than a proficiency problem. And they are not willing to accept that, which is what I pay them for.

I believe this is the kind of commander intervention that prevents the incidents that occurred in 2007. They took very aggressive action early to make sure that there was no question in the mind of their crew force that marginal behavior or sort of satisfactory, just above the line, was not acceptable.

Now, there’s nothing good about the incident, Chairman. I’m not saying that. I’m just saying I like the way they responded. I wish they’d used different language in the email they sent. The word “rot” didn’t excite me, but it got my attention.

I don’t believe that that’s the problem. I don’t believe we have a nuclear surety risk at Minot Air Force Base. I believe we have commanders who are taking very aggressive action to ensure that never occurs. And in that respect, this is a good thing. The idea that we have people not performing to the standard we expect will never be good, and we won’t tolerate it.

SEN. SHELBY: But you’re basically saying that the commander, in this case Colonel Vercher at the top, was doing the proper thing in getting to it and following up on it and trying to correct it. Is that right?

GEN. WELSH: Yes, sir. That’s exactly what I’m saying.

We can disagree about whether tougher inspections will solve the problem — I have my doubts — but I do think we are all over-reacting to the results of a single inspection.

There is, by the way, a broader question of whether a morale problem exists at all. Matthew Vanderschuere  – who spent five years as a Flight Commander in the 320th Missile Squadron (from 2007-2011 as best I can tell) — has argued that he didn’t see a morale crisis during his service:

Speaking broadly, after a five-year missile assignment, I observed that most of our top troops opted to fight for competitive slots to “stay in nukes.” Follow-on assignments to U.S. Strategic Command, ICBM Weapons School, or the 576th Flight Test squadron (which tests unarmed Minuteman III missiles over the Pacific) only went to the best missileers with the best resumes.

I don’t know what to say other than Vanderschuere’s anecdotal reporting differs from the anecdotal reporting in several of the reviews, including the Air Force Blue Ribbon Review and the Secretary of Defense Task Force, which both concluded that the missileers with the best resumes were leaving ICBM force for space operations. It is possible that the situation has improved since the Secretary of Defense Task Force visited FE Warren in 2008, that Vanderschuere is just an optimistic sort of guy, that F.E. Warren has unusually happy missileers, or even that the various reviews got it wrong.

One cautionary thought – Vanderschuere didn’t decide to stay in nukes himself.  He’s now working on a PhD at American University, serving in the reserve.  Presuming he was among the best and brightest, that’s at least one more anecdotal case of brain drain.