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Air Force Moves to Boost Morale of ICBM Launch Crews

By Diane Barnes

Global Security Newswire

An ICBM maintenance worker connects equipment to a communication verification panel during an annual code change in 2006 at Minot Air Force Base, N.D. The U.S. Air Force on Tuesday said it is taking steps to improve the morale of ICBM launch personnel (U.S. Air Force photo). An ICBM maintenance worker connects equipment to a communication verification panel during an annual code change in 2006 at Minot Air Force Base, N.D. The U.S. Air Force on Tuesday said it is taking steps to improve the morale of ICBM launch personnel (U.S. Air Force photo).

WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Air Force on Tuesday said it is pushing to shore up the job satisfaction of personnel assigned the long-term duty of waiting to fire the nation's underground nuclear missiles, should an order to do so ever arrive.

The head of Air Force ICBM operations described the initiative for "mitigating stressors" on launch personnel several weeks after the service suspended from duty 19 officers for poor performance on portions of a March audit. Maj. Gen. Michael Carey said 10 members of the 91st Operations Group have been cleared for reinstatement to missile watch duties at Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota, while the other nine remain in a refresher course with teaching and exam components.

"Leaders are taking a holistic approach to a get-well program within the unit, focusing on proficiency, as well as individual preparation," Carey said in a press release.

He added the 20th Air Force had begun responding to suggestions from a three-month independent review of the Minot wing and two comparable strategic missile launch groups in Wyoming and Montana. The Air Force said RAND had yet to finalize its study of the missile wings, each of which oversees 150 Minuteman 3 ICBMs.

Study respondents described contending with "poor leadership" and a sense of being stuck in "dead-end careers," according to internal Air Force e-mails. They demanded better qualified staffers and "leaders who will listen," the Associated Press reported on Wednesday.

Carey told AP he took the management concerns "to heart," but added further review is necessary. Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh ordered the think-tank assessment that began in December and wrapped up in February.

"They are not unhappy," Carey said of the crew members.

In addition to steps aimed at improving management and interpersonal exchanges among ICBM personnel, Carey reported demanding additional efforts to "ensure that people's time off is protected."

"Knowing when you'll be home is very important and relieves stress on airmen and their families," he said in remarks released by the Air Force.

ICBM oversight duty routinely isolates missile crew members for over a year, and they can spend more than five days each week in exercises and on "alert," former ICBM officer John Noonan indicated in a 2011 Wired magazine article. Work takes place in sealed, isolated chambers, he added.

"Remaining alert is the real challenge," Noonan wrote. Three missile officers lost their jobs for falling asleep while on duty at the Minot base in 2008.

Neither RAND nor the Air Force responded to questions by press time.

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