Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Burdens of command?

Something very odd seems to have been happening at Minot AFB:
"The 17 cases mark the Air Force’s most extensive sidelining ever of launch crew members, according to Lt. Col. Angie Blair, a spokeswoman for Air Force Global Strike Command, which oversees the missile units as well as nuclear-capable bombers. The 91st Missile Wing has 150 officers assigned to launch control duty."
I've always wondered how the crews of nuclear-delivery units - SLBM silo, bomber, and submarine crews - manage to maintain their attitudes and skills knowing that if they ever have to actually use them it will very likely be as part of the end of the known world.

Apparently some couldn't do so.

It would seem to me that if 10% of your unit is not meeting the standards of their mission-essential tasks it's not only the unit has a problem. You as the commander have a problem. If I were the higher I suspect that I would be very critical of a subordinate whose unit had deteriorated to this point.

So when I read this article I guess my question for the USAF readers more knowledgeable of their service and these missile units would be; is it possible that this many troops could get to such a sorry state as to have to be relieved without the commander's knowledge or some sort of responsibility on that commander's part? The USAF appears to believe so - Col. Robert Vercher, the 91st SMW commander, was not disciplined or, if he was, was not so disciplined that he had to be relieved. But how likely is that?

And, also, how difficult IS it for outfits like missile crews to avoid "rot"? ISTM that sitting down in a hole waiting for Armageddon would pretty much suck as a job description, but that's just me.


  1. I think this article explains the situation a bit better.

    These officers weren't, as far as I'm aware, relieved of duty as officers, but their certifications to be launch control officers were revoked. Basically it's a situation where one has to maintain certain standards, qualifications and certifications to perform specific missions or tasks. Fail to maintain them and then you're no longer allowed to do that task or mission. Commanders in the Air Force can revoke those qualifications for cause which is what appears to have happened here. I've seen it happen several times to individuals (and made a few recommendations to the Commander as well), but never such a large group.

    Ever since the nuclear fuck-up a few years ago that got both the Secretary and CSAF fired, the Air Force doesn't mess around when it comes to the "nuclear enterprise" (Air Force term).

  2. Field Marshall Slim had a number of subordinate commanders who thought that making their soldiers take the issued quinine pills was their unit doctor's responsibility. Their units had high incidences of malaria and poor operational readiness.

    Once Slim started firing those commanders, all the rest took a very personal interest in getting their troops to take the quinine, consequently raising operational readiness dramatically.

  3. The large group being revoked is indicative of a leadership issue.

    And didn't the article state that it was an attitude problem? "Your team members are a reflection of your leadership" is the number one lesson I still recall from 50 years ago.

    I liked what Gates did by firing the guys at the top four or five years back.

  4. To all,
    I think that the leadership style of the entire US military structure is screwed and this is just the tip of the ice berg.
    When a org from o10 down to o1 accept and think that a deaths head and grim reaper icons are correct for unit wear then we have a systemic cutesy attitude to death dealing nucs capable of destroying the advance of civilization.
    How can any unit wear such garbage? How can we say that we value life when we reflect the exact opposite in our unit patches?
    Death heads are not what democracy and the Constitution are about? If i'm wrong on this then i served evil rather than good.
    The chain from the secdef down to snuffy ignore these indicators of disconnect from reality.


    1. Questionable symbols have been in widespread sue for centuries. I recall a cavalry general from about 1915 who wore a fur hat with a skull and crossed bones depiction.

      It's not a tell-tale sign of rotten leadership style.

      related, but funny:

    2. Not to mention the cap badge of the Queen's Royal Lancers.
      Anyway, I don't think the badge shown here would be part of an actual uniform. Too cute even by American standards. Probably something worn off-duty

  5. Andy: yeah, I got that, that these guys were "retrained" (our term in the USA for "placed on the frame stretcher and yanked on to unfuck their brain housing group") not actually "relieved". But, still, they seem to have been so utterly screwed up that a simple verbal admonishment and a sharp slap to the back of the head doesn't seem to have worked, so the problems with their attitudes and their performance seem to have been pretty serious.

    But my question would still be; how could that NOT be related to problems with their commander(s)? And maybe it was and maybe the USAF has quietly issued the SMW commander a letter of reprimand that will ensure he never sees a star. But, still..?

  6. Here's the quote from your linked article that makes me continue to wonder: "He was talking about this attitude among a few of the crew members . . . who he didn't think were committed enough to staying fully aware of all the responsibilities of their job all the time and getting better continuously in the performance of their mission," explained Donley. "They can do the job, but they didn't have the attitude and the drive that he expected to see from his missile crew members."

    So, basically, the guys were dorking off in the silos and not doing things (probably) like PMCS and system checks that would have interrupted their Farmville and pinochle time.

    I get that; it's not like they were selling secrets to the Russians. But that sort of attitude takes a while, and a fair amount of command inattention, to develop.

    I think what caught me about this is what we've been seeing a fair bit of lately; that the snuffys fuck up and the snuffys get kicked. It's almost like if you get high enough above snuffy-land you can skate on taking responsibility for your unit's problems. Am I being to harsh here?

    1. "I think what caught me about this is what we've been seeing a fair bit of lately; that the snuffys fuck up and the snuffys get kicked. It's almost like if you get high enough above snuffy-land you can skate on taking responsibility for your unit's problems. Am I being to harsh here?"

      'Lately'? It was clearly and publicly in full swing over the last decade, and probably just not as prominent before that.

  7. jim: I can't imagine working in a nuclear weapons unit and NOT developing a pretty sick sense of humor. Let's face it; your job is to deliver fucking Armageddon. There's no real "military" purpose there in any sense of the traditional meaning of the word. You're not "fighting". You push a button and a ginormous chunk of the Earth becomes a glassy wasteland for the next century.

    That was my question about how these guys maintain. I think the Grim Reaper isn't a problem; it's the normal reaction of sane human beings that realize that their "military mission" is to become Death, Destroyer of Worlds. It's by definition kind of an insane thing.

  8. Chief,

    "But my question would still be; how could that NOT be related to problems with their commander(s)?"

    That's a good question. I guess it would depend on when he/she took command and whether the Commander was aware of what was going on. I've seen it happen where a Commander wasn't aware of a problem but moved to correct it once he found out. Here I think that case is more likely simply because the Air Force has shown little reluctance to fire leadership in nuclear units over the past couple of years and Commanders know that.

    "I think what caught me about this is what we've been seeing a fair bit of lately; that the snuffys fuck up and the snuffys get kicked. It's almost like if you get high enough above snuffy-land you can skate on taking responsibility for your unit's problems. Am I being to harsh here?"

    I don't think you're being too harsh and agree there is a lot of that going around, and it's certainly possible that's the case here.

  9. Yeah, I guess the one way I could see this sort of thing going down is if Col Vercher had just taken command of the 91SMW. Been there, seen that where an outgoing commander keeps everything on the downlow and its the incoming guy who gets slapped in the head when he/she finds out about the "rot".

    Hopefully that's the case. I have to say, I'm getting very tired of seeing unit problems treated as the junior officer/enlisted problems and then watching the services seemingly gobsmacked when the problems keep returning. As mike and Ael point out, this ain't rocket science. If a couple of senior people get hammered the survivors suddenly get real interested in what's going on below them. Pour l'encouragement les autres and all that...

  10. Unfortunately there is still a lot of that Chief. Different ranks for different spanks is alive and well :(

    My reserve unit just went through its major inspection and based on the practice runs, the leadership started calling it "operation save our jobs." A lot of hard work overcame bad management and leadership and we passed. My area did very well, but I kind of wish the whole unit has failed....

    I think a lot of the problem, as I see it, is that people aren't selected for O-6 based on their leadership ability - typically they are tactically superior operators who make the sacrifices to get the necessary blocks checked (this is the reserve, there's a different dynamic for active duty).

  11. My experience was (and keep in mind that this was from early Eighties to low Oughts, when you still COULD be passed over for promotion for O-4 even though you had a pulse) that the qualities that tended to make people good actual troop leaders and trainers tended to make them look bad on their OER/NCOERs. So people who DID get promoted were often the people who never took risks, played things very safe, and so that when they DID get into senior positions where they pretty much HAD to take chances they had lost the habit and the skills. They tended to err on the side of CYA...

    I think the dynamic is different in that technical skills are less of a qualifier in the USA versus the USAF. I've often worked for people who those of us on the ground recognized as technically/tactically indifferent as O-3s only to run into them making the same gaffes as O-5s and O-6s...

    I get that there's a protective association for the folks with the glittery stuff on their shoulders; I'm not saying that the wing commander should get he same hiding as the airman who fails to check the bomb release mechanism. But I'd like to see a different, perhaps less public, but even more stringent requirement for competence at the senior level. ISTM that a colonel or BG who fucks up is more dangerous than a SRA who fucks up and should be quickly and quietly eased out as soon as that incapability makes itself known.

  12. I'm not sure how big a deal this incident is. A group of junior officers with "attitude" issues? Small community of people in an isolated duty environment with the responsibility to do the unthinkable, no less something they may well think is highly improbable. I get the impression that the command concern was whether or not these guys were mentally "up for the game", not whether the security of the nukes was compromised to the point where a bad guy might get hold of one. Nor do I get the impression there were worries about a rogue launch.

    So, what is "the game"? Being ready at a moment's notice to clinically execute an order to basically end life as we know it in response to whom? Not only are these guys stationed in the middle of nowhere, but the probability of actually being given a mission is truly remote. While their weapons system is of monumental enormity, the probability of employment places them in the back waters of the military. All it would take is a couple of conversations on the subject of "What are we really contributing, and in response to whom", and I can see how "seriousness" about the actual launch probability could be significantly diminished. Add to that the possibility of these junior officers seeing silo duty as simply a box to be checked enroute to something with greater immediate relevance, and it gets more complicated.