WASHINGTON — When Deborah Lee James became top boss of the Air Force seven months ago she had no inkling a nuclear crisis was brewing. But once it erupted in the form of exam-cheating by dozens of missile launch officers, she quickly announced conclusions that no Air Force leader before her had dared state publicly.
The nuclear missile corps' problems run deep, she said, morale is "spotty" and forceful fixes are needed.
James reached those conclusions in January after a short visit to the three Air Force bases that operate intercontinental ballistic missiles, or ICBMs. She met not only with commanders but with the rank-and-file, including enlisted airmen who keep the missiles running properly and junior officers trained to launch them.
"I walked away believing there was something systemic, cultural if you will, that went beyond cheating and (that's) why I felt like we needed to not just address cheating — yes, we have to fix that — but we need to go farther than that," she said in an Associated Press interview in her Pentagon office overlooking the Potomac River.
To her it seemed natural to acknowledge this publicly, although others in the Air Force had chosen not to.
"I hope and believe I am a straight talker," she said. "I think it's better to just say it. Don't mince words. And so I thought it was important to just stand up publicly and say what seemed to be obvious to me."
Her candor and crisis management have won praise from Republicans and Democrats alike.
"She has forged relationships with troops and listened to their inputs," said Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon, the California Republican who is chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. "She has identified shortfalls in ICBM leadership and made corrections. That is a sharp difference from the way Air Force leadership has handled these issues in the past."
James, 55, is only the second woman to serve as Air Force secretary, the service's top civilian official. She took office in December 2013 following months of Associated Press reports documenting problems inside the nuclear missile corps, starting with the sidelining in April 2013 of 19 launch officers at Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota for what commanders called attitude and performance flaws. It was an unprecedented action and coincided with the AP's publication of an internal email from an officer at Minot complaining of "rot" inside the ICBM force.
Senior Air Force officers at the time generally dismissed the reports, saying any problems were localized and limited.
"I don't particularly agree that we have any compelling problems" in the ICBM force, Maj. Gen. Garrett Harencak, the top nuclear weapons staff officer at Air Force headquarters, said in June 2013. "The morale of our crews out there — I've been out there — is exceedingly, exceedingly, good."
James took a look for herself in January 2014 and saw something different, worse than she had imagined. She traveled to each of the three ICBM bases after disclosing at a Pentagon news conference that 34 launch officers at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana had been implicated in a cheating scandal and a small number of those also were suspects in an illegal drug use investigation. (The number implicated in the cheating later rose to nearly 100.)
Before James hit the road she quickly gathered enough information about the dimensions of the cheating to satisfy herself that it did not amount to "a major problem that could be of catastrophic consequences."
"But still, why did this happen and what is going on?" she asked herself.
What she found was a set of interconnected problems that went deeper than the cheating. She spotted morale issues, with airmen asking, in essence, why is it that the Air Force claims the nuclear mission is its No. 1 priority and yet missile facilities are in poor shape and spare parts are in short supply?
"Some of the things I saw had been of a longstanding nature," she said. "So why had these things not gotten fixed before? It's a good question, and I can't really answer that."
James, a native of Rumson, New Jersey, never served in the military but spent a decade — from 1983 to 1993 — as a professional staff member on the House Armed Services Committee, which has oversight responsibility for the Defense Department. From 2002-13 she was a senior executive at Science Applications International Corp. in McLean, Virginia.
John Hamre, who was on the professional staff of the Senate Armed Services Committee while she was a counterpart on the House side, said he was not surprised that she quickly sized up the nuclear problem and attacked it head on.
"She is wise enough to know that you cannot fudge your way through a political problem if you don't solve it. It keeps coming back. The way she handled the ICBM problem was typical Debbie James," said Hamre, who also worked closely with James from 1993-97 when he was the Pentagon's budget chief and she was assistant secretary of defense for reserve affairs. Hamre, who later was deputy defense secretary, is now president and chief executive officer of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank.
James said she was surprised by the ICBM crisis, but not unprepared.
"Life comes at you fast and furious sometimes," she said with a grin.