Air Force General: 'There Was a Huge Morale Problem' in Nuke Force

This photo taken June 24, 2014, shows a patch on the commander's chair in the underground control room where a pair of missile launch officers man a 24-hour shift at an ICBM launch control facility at Minot Air Force Base, N.D. Charlie Riedel/AP

The man in charge of the U.S. Air Force's nuclear missile arsenal acknowledged that many airmen in the nuke force were dissatisfied with their jobs at the time of last year's cheating scandal.

Maj. Gen. Jack Weinstein, who as commander of the 20th Air Force oversees the service's arsenal of intercontinental ballistic missiles, was blunt when asked about the issue on Thursday during a hearing on Capitol Hill.

"There was a huge morale problem before we started the changes," he said in a response to questioning from Rep. Jackie Speier, D-California, during a hearing of the House Armed Services Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee.

Almost 100 launch officers at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana -- about half of the missileers on the post -- were involved in cheating on monthly proficiency tests administered in late 2013. The cheating probe was spurred by a separate investigation of drug possession allegations involving 11 officers at six Air Force bases in the U.S. and the U.K.

After multiple Air Force and Pentagon reviews of the incident, the commander of the 341st Missile Wing resigned, nine midgrade officers at the base were relieved of command, and 79 junior grade officers were disciplined. Weinstein oversaw the dismissals.

The general was also part of a team of civilian and military leaders who worked to implement a number of moves designed to change the attitudes and outlooks of the young airmen who are tasked with guarding nuclear missiles in underground silos for 24 hours at a time.  

New Scheduling Increases Morale

In the wake of the incident, the service announced new bonuses for certain qualified airmen, new job assignment options to better meet their preferences, and scheduling changes to increase the amount of time they can be home between shifts.

The last change has arguably had the biggest impact on morale, Weinstein said.

"One thing we have implemented that has been a huge morale booster is a change in the alert schedule," he said. "The previous alert schedule had an individual that would go on alert, for example, on a Monday. They would come back on a Tuesday and would have to work again on Wednesday. That doesn't work at a place like Malmstrom Air Force Base, which has the largest missile field, and especially in the winter."

He added, "We have introduced a schedule ... which is they're on alert on a Monday. They travel back [home] on a Tuesday. They have Wednesday as a day off. And then on Thursday they can either pull alerts or go into training."

Weinstein said the service has done a much better job offering missileers one of their top three choices for their next assignment and is currently fulfilling about 80 percent of the requests.

Congress Not Alerted to Cheating Scandals

The widespread cheating was the latest incident involving the Air Force's nuclear force. In 2013, more than a dozen officers were removed from their positions at Minot Air Force Base following inspection failures. In 2008, the service created Global Strike Command to better manage nuclear weapons and personnel after a B-52 mistakenly loaded with nuclear warheads flew across the country.

Given such a history, it arguably wasn't a surprise when Speier grilled Weinstein about why lawmakers weren't notified earlier of the cheating.

"Congress was alerted to the cheating and morale problems through press articles," she said. "We weren't informed by any of the executives within the military. Why were we not alerted to the problem initially?" After a pause, she added, "Did you not know about it either?"

"I knew completely about it, and I'll tell you when I found out about it exactly and then who I notified," Weinstein replied. "It was early January and we were hosting the secretary of defense. Secretary Hagel was there," he said, referring to Chuck Hagel, who retired earlier this year. "I found out on that day that there was a drug investigation ongoing, and that drug investigation, besides touching other Air Force installations, touched crew members at my installation, Malmstrom. I told the secretary of defense immediately when I found out and then we informed our senior leadership at the time."

Speier then asked, "How about Congress?"

"As the operational commander, I work for the commander of Global Strike Command and the commander of U.S. Strategic Command, and those people were told immediately that there was a problem," Weinstein replied.

"That doesn't respond to Congress not being told about it until we read about it in the paper," Speier said.

-- Brendan McGarry can be reached at Brendan.McGarry@military.com.

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