PONI Debates the Issues Blog

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In early 2014, the ICBM community was rocked by a cheating scandal that has profoundly affected the way they train. In response to the scandal, Air Force Global Strike Command initiated the Force Improvement Program (FIP) to improve training, evaluation, and morale in the nuclear community.

Prior to FIP, the training environment at the tactical wings was not at all conducive to learning. Monthly trainer rides in the missile procedure trainers (MPTs) were supposed to be a place to learn and improve upon mistakes. Unfortunately, leadership at the time utilized training as the sole means of stratifying their people. Yes, I will concede that excelling in training can translate to excellence in the field. However, at the time, the way we trained was not indicative of the way we performed field operations and skillful crews in the MPTs did not always replicate their oft-praised skills in the field. This created a climate in which crews were afraid to make mistakes in training; despite the notion that training exists in order that we may learn from errors.

Presently, leadership has embraced training and evaluations as a means to grow and develop the crew force. The training atmosphere now encourages missile crews to push their limits so that they can better understand their capabilities as a crew and on the weapon system. Mistakes are no longer seen as career ending, but as learning points to improve the entire missile community.

Although FIP has improved the culture of training, it has yet to sufficiently address the matter of relevance that plaques the crew force. Each day, 45 missile combat crews deploy to the field while knowing full well that there is a slim-to-none chance that they will receive that call from the president to launch their missiles. Obviously, this is a good problem to have. It is a clear mark that our nuclear deterrence mission is succeeding. However, it also raises the question of how to effectively communicate to the launch officers that their job is relevant.

I’ll be honest, pulling crew duty is not glamourous. Although FIP has allowed for extrinsic motivators – like incentive pay – for missile operators, it is my opinion that it has not sufficiently addressed intrinsic motivators for the crew force. For a member of any profession to be inwardly motivated, they must have a solid answer to the question of: “What does our existence do and why does it matter?”

To the crew force, I answer you with the following: Your existence, your capability and will to execute your mission not only provides deterrence, but it provides the military might to enable political will. Without our ability to execute our mission, the scope and influence of U.S. international politics would be vastly limited.

The U.S. Air Force must take an active role in ensuring that crews remain not only extrinsically motivated, but that they are intrinsically driven as well. At the squadron level, this can be as simple as supplementing monthly training with case studies that showcase how America’s nuclear deterrence has played into the strategic calculus of international politics. At the Majcom level, Global Strike Command might want to consider investing funds to provide opportunities for young officers to attend working groups and think-tank events in an effort to broaden the collective political knowledge of the crew force in respect to the importance and weight of the nuclear mission.

Lt. Tom P. Keim is a Missile Combat Crew Instructor at the 740th Missile Squadron; he is responsible for the training and proficiency of the 53 combat crew members within the squadron. Prior to his current position Lt. Keim served as Missile Combat Crew Commander, Squadron Command Post, where he is accountable to the President and SecDef for the launch actions of 50 ICBMs, monitors an additional 100 ICBMs and oversees 3.3 billion dollars of nuclear weapon system assets. In his time at the 740th Missile Squadron he has amassed over 3000 hours of crew duty on the Minuteman III ICBM weapon system. He is currently pursuing a Masters of Arts in Public Policy in International Affairs through Liberty University. Lt. Keim entered the Air Force through ROTC at the University of North Texas where he received his B.A. in History.

The views expressed above are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Project on Nuclear Issues, the U.S. government or any of its agencies.

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The views expressed above are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of the Center for Strategic and International Studies or the Project on Nuclear Issues. The content of this web site does not constitute an endorsement by or opinion of the Department of Defense or any sponsor of the Project on Nuclear Issues.