by Claudette Roulo, DoD News, Defense Media Activity
Deputy Defense Secretary Bob Work said morale is strong at Minot Air Force Base after he visited facilities and spoke with Airmen Feb. 11, at the only base to host two legs of the nuclear triad.
Work spent the day visiting the base, home to the 91st Missile Wing, responsible for the operation and maintenance of Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles, and the 5th Bomb Wing, which flies the B-52H Stratofortress bomber.
The visit provided the deputy secretary with an opportunity to speak with service members and get a first-hand look at the issues he has been discussing in Washington as chairman of the Nuclear Deterrent Enterprise Review Group.
“Nothing’s better than being able to look the troops in the eye and … hear what they’re saying,” he said. “I now know what a ‘rising B-plug’ is and what it looks like, and I understand all of the different challenges they’re facing. It’s really good to put eyes on target.”
Renewed Effort to Improve Quality of Life
Following a string of incidents dating back to March 2013, when missile-launch crews failed an inspection, the Defense Department has focused renewed effort on improving the quality of life for service members and families at the base.
Some of the facilities the deputy secretary saw during his tour dated back to the 1950s, and are under scrutiny as part of the initiative to reinvigorate the nuclear force.
“These systems are so old that right now what happens is (Airmen) will order a part and the part has to be fabricated — there are not a lot of parts on the shelves — so it takes longer for them to get parts than they would like,” Work said.
Outdated facilities and equipment haven’t stopped the Airmen at Minot from performing their mission, Work said. The sign over the base’s gate reads “Only the Best Come North,” and outside-the-box thinking by operators and maintainers is keeping the mission on track, he said.
“Some of the stuff they’re doing is just amazing,” the deputy secretary said. “The stuff they’re doing in there is just unbelievable. … It’s because the troops are so damn good, so, the mission-capable rate of the missiles is really quite high. But man, they’re so old.”
Airmen Outline Concerns
Work held a private lunch with 12 Air Force maintainers who outlined some of their concerns for the deputy secretary. The Airmen agreed that the attention focused on the aging missile and bomber fleets is beginning to bear fruit, he said.
“They’ve seen the improvements in manning already occurring, they were very happy about that,” the deputy secretary said. “The one area that they’re worried about is the overall experience level of the force.”
As manning levels are brought back up, mid-level NCOs are leading an increasing number of new, inexperienced Airmen. At the same time, those NCOs aren’t as experienced as the service would like, Work said.
“That’s going to be something that, as the force grows, we’ll grow out of it,” the deputy secretary said.
Will the Focus Continue?
The Airmen he spoke with all are encouraged by the changes, he said, but they wondered if the attention would continue under the next defense secretary.
“I told them, ‘Look, Ash Carter is literally a nuclear physicist. This is one of the areas that he really is both strong on and thinks very much about.’ I told them that I thought it would continue, and certainly as long as I was the deputy secretary, it will continue,” Work said.
He added that morale is high.
“The troops were dedicated to the mission,” Work said. “Overall, I was pretty pleased.”