Air Force Wants Four-Star Nuke Commander

On a tour of nuclear facilities with Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, media received a tour of the nuclear launch control simulator that F.E. Warren Air Force Base uses to train missile officers. (Stars and Stripes photo)

WASHINGTON — At a time when budgets are shrinking and headquarters staffs are being pared back, the Air Force wants to upgrade Global Strike Command from a three-star to a four-star billet and add 1,100 people to the organization, the service announced last week.

Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James proposed the change to Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, which would require congressional approval.

Air Force and Defense Department leaders are putting a renewed emphasis on the nuclear enterprise following a major cheating scandal involving missile launch officers, as well as indications of low morale among airmen in the nuclear field.

“This important mission in the Air Force deserves the highest level of leadership oversight similar to our other operational core mission areas,” James said in a news release.

Service leaders also want to:

■ Make the Air Force assistant chief of staff for strategic deterrence and nuclear integration a three-star rather than a two-star position, as it is now.

■ Put more midlevel officers into the missile squadrons as assistant operations officers to serve in between the lieutenant colonel squadron commander and lieutenants and captains who perform the alert mission.

■ Offer new incentives to missileers. Effective Oct. 1, new missileers will be eligible for accession bonus pay, and the service will offer targeted incentive pay for airmen working outside the main base

■ Create a new Nuclear Deterrence Operations Service Medal for outstanding airmen. James has already approved this move.

These proposals will be worked on over the next several months, according to the Air Force.

The Air Force did not provide full details about the increase in the number of airmen within Global Strike Command. But part of the bump will go toward increasing manning levels “to address shortfalls and offer our airmen a more stable work schedule and better quality of life,” Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh III said in the news release.

The proposed upgrades and personnel increases come at a time when Hagel ordered all of the services to cut their headquarters staff by 20 percent by 2019. Hagel’s directive was part of a larger Pentagon effort to save money at a time of budget austerity. James has said that the Air Force plans to reach that target as early as next year.

Some outside experts doubt that upgrading the status of the top officers will improve things much.

“I think the point of these changes is to both elevate the significance of the nuclear mission compared to other fields, and [to] give the career field a stronger voice in the senior level debates over allocation of resources and manpower. But I think they are mostly symbolic, and it’s not clear how much new authority these bumps will convey,” former missileer Brian Weeden told Stars and Stripes in an email.

“There are already plenty of three-stars and four-stars around, and creating a couple of new ones to represent the missileers is not going to have that big of an impact,” Weeden said. “This change would seem to go against the recent push to reduce the number of general officers and reduce staffs. More high-ranking generals means more bureaucracy.”

But Clark Murdoch, a nuclear weapons expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies who previously worked in the Office of the Air Force Chief of Staff, said upgrading Global Strike Command to a four-star billet is a significant step.

“There’s no question that being one of the four-stars give you a seat at the Corona table where [all] the four-stars meet for leadership issues … The decision to give a fourth star to the commander of Global Strike [Command] is an indication that the Air Force is giving the nuclear mission the same attention that it’s giving to conventional missions,” Murdoch said.

“When you move somebody from a three-star to a four-star, it changes the decision forum that they’re eligible to sit in, [and] it changes the way their peers look at them because they’re a peer now, not one level below,” according to Murdoch. “It is a status thing, but status matters in the military.”

Still, Murdoch said giving the commander of Global Strike Command a fourth star won’t guarantee that the organization will get what it wants or needs.

“It will help them fight for resources, but again, there’s always a competition for resources ... Some 600-pound gorillas are bigger than other 600-pound gorillas, even though they all have four stars. That’s always the case. But any 4-star gorilla is bigger than a 3-star gorilla,” Murdoch said.

Defense officials have been seeking to counter the belief expressed by some missileers that they aren’t valued a highly as other specialists in an era where a massive nuclear war with Russia isn’t considered a realistic possibility.

“This is our most critically important mission, and these personnel actions show that,” Welsh said.

Weeden offered a different perspective.

“I think the new incentives will help will overall morale and are a step in the right direction,” Weeden said. “[But] I don’t think [all of these planned changes] really get at the heart of the issue … The root cause [of the problems in the nuclear enterprise] is the changing role of nuclear deterrence in U.S. national security. It currently plays a much different role from where it was during the Cold War and has taken a backseat to issues like counterterrorism and nonproliferation. Yet the mantra from the leadership is that nothing has changed and it’s still the top national security priority. Until there is top level recognition of this change in role, I think continuing to insist that the world hasn’t changed is going to be an ongoing issue that may continue to cause problems down the road.”

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