Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James shared her observations from her visit with airmen across the ICBM community following revelations of a proficiency-test cheating scandal at Malmstrom Air Force Base, Mont., last month.
Speaking to an audience at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, James discussed her visits to bases in Wyoming, North Dakota, Montana and Louisiana.
“I received command briefs, I took tours, [and] I learned about the mission, firsthand,” she said. “And very importantly, I talked directly to Airmen.”
Using town hall meetings and focus group environments, James said, she spoke to missileers, security forces, maintenance, support and facilities personnel – all without their commanders or any note-takers present.
“I got a microcosm of all the different types of teammates,” she said. “And what I learned in all of these settings was actually very enlightening.”
Based on these discussions, James said, she was able to come up with seven areas that she said will be addressed as part of the action plan the Air Force owes to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel within 60 days.”
“I believe that, in fact, we do have some systemic problems in the force,” she said. “I picked up on morale issues as I went from place to place.” James cited spotty morale, micromanagement and the “need for perfection” as part of this systemic problem at every base she visited.
“The need for perfection has created a climate of what I think is undue stress and fear among the missile community about their futures,” she said. “And again, it wasn’t just at Malmstrom, where the cheating incident occurred. I heard this at every place I visited.”
A holistic approach is essential in fixing the problem, the Air Force secretary said. “To just go after the incident of cheating is not adequate,” she added, “and so, I think wholistic is the way to go.”
The secretary’s second observation involved an unhealthy climate bred by the way test scores are used to motivate airmen. In addition to having to score 90 percent or better on three monthly proficiency tests, James explained, missileers also have to perform well on periodic simulations and other forms of outside inspections and evaluations.
“What I found is that the missileers felt driven to score 100 percent all the time,” she said. This is because commanders were using test scores as the sole factor in promotions, explained. “So to me, a huge irony in this whole situation is that these missileers who cheated probably didn’t even cheat to meet the standard or to pass,” she added.
It could very well be that they cheated in an effort to get a 100 percent score all the time, because that is the prevailing mentality, James said.
“The third [observation] is accountability,” she said. “I’ll be short and sweet on this one: there is going to be accountability in this matter. There certainly will be appropriate accountability for individuals who participated in the incident. We’re also assessing leadership accountability in this.”
The secretary said her fourth observation dealt with professionalism and leadership development, and “we have some work to do here as well.”
James pointed to how airmen receive training and mentorship, not just in their jobs, but also in leadership. “We place a great premium on leadership in the Air Force,” she said. “Are they getting the appropriate levels of leadership? Do they get the professional mentorship and supervision that I’ve seen go on elsewhere in the Air Force? As I mentioned, this is a young, so mentorship and leadership from higher levels is important.”
The fifth observation, she said, is a need to reinvigorate the Air Force’s core values: “Integrity first, service before self, and excellence in all we do.”
“And of course, this was a major failure of integrity – integrity first,” James said. “So airmen need to be reminded, and we need to look for ways to build this in at all levels throughout their careers.”
The Air Force secretary also noted Hagel’s announcement last week that he will appoint a senior general officer to focus on “core values, ethics, character [and] leadership.”
“We want to do this across the board in the military, and certainly, we in the Air Force will be an important part of this effort,” James said.
For her sixth observation, James pointed to potential lessons to be learned from how the Navy oversees its nuclear force – for example, a clear path for promotion.
“I call this ‘incentives, accolades and recognition,’” she said. Should we consider some sort of incentive pay or educational benefits for certain types of work in this career field so that it becomes more attractive?” James asked.
“They do such things in the Navy,” she continued. Air Force officials are learning more about what the Navy does, she said, to see what might apply.
“What about medals and ribbons, and other forms of accolades?” James asked. “We need to look at all of that, and by the way, we need to know how to do this for our officer corps, but we also need to it for the enlisted force as well, because they are working extremely hard under what are arduous conditions as well.”
James called her final observation “other investments,” and asked, “Do we put enough of our money where our mouth is?”
By that, she explained, she means whether there should be consideration of additional funding for increased manning levels or higher priority for certain military construction or maintenance, or even toward addressing quality-of-life issues.
“I mentioned earlier these are sometimes remote locations,” she noted, “so quality of life counts.”
James emphasized that while the specific cheating incident will be addressed, a holistic approach and a look at the totality of the nuclear enterprise will be part of the process.
“You may have noticed that each of my seven observations directly relate and focus on people,” she said. “I think people are the core of this, and so getting this done right for people in the future will be key to us moving forward.”
James noted while 92 airmen have been implicated in the cheating incident, “the vast majority of our airmen, particularly, the vast majority of the 36,000 that are involved with this mission … are performing superbly.”
“They are working hard,” she said. “They are doing great work for you and for me, and with great pride every day.”