Missileer Improvements Hit Mark, but Still More to Do

1st Lt. Pamela Blanco-Coca, 319th Missile Squadron missile combat crew commander, and her deputy commander, 2nd Lt. John Anderson, simulate key turns of the Minuteman III Weapon System on Feb. 9, 2016, in a launch control center in the F.E. Warren AFB, Wyo., missile complex. Air Force photo by SrA. Jason Wiese.

Performance and professionalism in the Air Force’s nuclear ranks has improved in the last few years following a spate of personnel issues, but there’s always more work to be done to ensure the men and women who watch the arsenal are at their best, the service’s top uniformed officer said this week.

“I believe we’ve come a long way,” Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein said at a June 26 AFA Mitchell Institute breakfast. “We’ve all had to make sure that we keep our foot on the gas on this. I’m optimistic, but I’m not comfortable.”

Nuclear operators have hit rough patches over the past several years: low morale and lost focus coupled with reports of drug use, weapons mismanagement, a proficiency test cheating scandal, and frequent staff turnover. In response, the service launched programs to revamp training and regulations and to keep missileers in their jobs longer, rather than send them to other specialties after a few years. The Air Force has also made a conscious effort to offer bonuses, tout missileers’ work, and visit the three nuclear missile bases spread across rural Wyoming, North Dakota, and Montana.

Now, the service wants to develop its missile-managing employees’ leadership skills at the same time as it develops new nuclear weapons and Northrop Grumman’s B-21 bomber. Some airmen at Air Command and Staff College are taking a yearlong course focused on the nuclear enterprise in one effort to bolster leadership in those career fields.

“One of the tasks I gave them was to … give us some fresh thinking on, how do we do command and control if nuclear weapons were inserted into a conventional fight?” Goldfein said. “We built our nuclear command and control to be separate from our conventional command and control.”

If the Russians deployed a low-yield, “tactical” nuclear weapon in combat, regional commanders would need the ability to integrate nukes into their otherwise conventionally armed battle plan. However, Goldfein emphasized that a “nuclear weapon is a nuclear weapon,” saying many don’t believe there is such a thing as a tactical nuke.

“Our command-and-control systems right now are not as agile as they need to be,” he continued. “This group of scholars have been doing some extraordinary work, writing papers and thinking about what is the command-and-control mechanism and how does that need to feed into [nuclear command, control, and communications]?”

The Air Force’s NC3 Integration Directorate has been mulling the idea of dual-use command and control for at least two years, and points to the concept as one of the most complicated security hurdles it faces in bringing the NC3 enterprise into the digital age.

Goldfein argues efforts to modernize decades-old NC3 systems also need to dovetail with the Air Force’s Advanced Battle Management System, envisioned as a network of conventional C2 assets spread across air, land, and space sensors and platforms, as well as with the push into commercial space capabilities.