I don’t usually comment on current events or politics or government; it is a little out of my education-leadership-development role. That being said, I see no reason not to explore some of the underlying psychological and leadership failings that lead to failures in military operations.
For those of you who may not have read about this yet, here is a link to the most recent article about missile crews failing to follow procedure: http://bit.ly/1dgwBdk. This isn’t the first time and it won’t be the last time that missile crews and their support entities fail to follow procedure. There is a long list of incidents that have led to various punishments over the years and, with the lack of carefully considered proactive or retroactive steps to curtail events such as these, there will be many events in the future to look out for.
Since I see this post evolving into a lengthy ordeal, I’m going to go ahead and take this piece-by-piece. I apologize for the article-length post. What you shouldn’t expect from me; what I hope not to promote, is a distrust of our military. Rather, I would that citizens and leaders took a moment to look at the institution in a critical light, rather than blindly waving flags and shouting “support our troops” at the top of their patriotic lungs. I consider myself a patriot. I have the Constitution hanging in my office, I’ve served in an overseas conflict, and I am exceedingly proud of my military service. I served under excellent and awful leaders (fodder for coming blog posts).
My first point: officers should not be automatons. I’ve heard many of my friends and read a lot of opinion pieces on the recent spate of procedural issues surrounding launch control center internal blast doors being left open by missile crews despite the fact that it is a violation of written procedure. It is a great discussion and worth having, but so often the comments fail to address underlying issues. I grow tired of hearing:
“they should follow the rules
“it is a failure of discipline
“I always closed/pumped the blast door
Rather than sanctimoniously declaiming, perhaps these individuals might critically consider what the underlying problems might be.
One would hope that critical thinking is one of the foundational skills our young officers are taught in their degree and commissioning programs. It seems reasonable to presume that an officer who was not able to think critically by the date of their commission would be drummed out of the service. Going forward, assuming that our officers have the ability to think critically, why were they disobeying a written instruction to close blast doors?
I’m not going to sit here and debate the ethics of obeying an order, however silly that order might be (this is not a blog on ethics). What I am going to do is ask you, the reader, to think for a moment about what you would do.
The blast door being opened or closed isn’t the issue. In fact, there isn’t simply one issue. The fact that the military expects its officers to operate as robots, to do as they are told, maintain 100% efficacy on tests and simulations, that they should run error-free operations or face punishment is tantamount to learned helplessness http://bit.ly/924udH and we owe more to our dedicated men and women in the field than that sort of psychological torture.
I’m not sure what is worse than some of the out-of-control punishments that have been meted out to the chain of command in situations like these. Operations group commanders have fired an entire chain of subordinates (ostensibly to correct failures in leadership that led to an issue). Entire squadrons, sometimes hundreds of individuals, forced to take a physical fitness test last minute. Officers and airmen have been forced to report to duty at 5AM, regardless of their work schedule, in full dress uniform to be screamed at by “leadership.” Career-killing Article 15s and Letters of Reprimand have been issued to officers for “violations” that are commonplace occurrences. This breeds a culture of fear, not one of acceptance and camaraderie.
Take a look at the satire that has been built up around missile operations. The blatant mockery alone should clue you in to the farcical nature of many of the rules and behaviors that have become routine and expected in that career field. Check out https://www.facebook.com/MissileerMemes if you want some amusing, but-all-too-true ideas about the morale at missile bases. Passive-aggressive complaints like these are memorialized in “unofficial crew logs” that are kept in the launch control centers and have a certain synchronicity with The Dilbert Index discussed in Freakonomics http://bit.ly/1iee2Ep.
When was the last time a third party L&D or OD professional took a serious look at the missile structure, training, morale issue? I can’t answer that question, but I can tell you from my own experience that no significant OD or LD changes have been made to the wing structure in the last 10 years. There have been upstream changes to the training side, changing a 69-day course to a 100-day course and the creation of Global Strike Command, which conglomerated nuclear operations under a single umbrella. There was even a push to “enhance” the career field by separating the space and missile operations career fields. Surprisingly, though, no real changes were made at the missile wings. Even the changes mentioned served to further isolate the individuals performing one of the most thankless officer jobs in the US military.
There are easy changes that can be made to mitigate situations like these. It is not too late to follow the training that the Air Force delivers from Air University in the various levels of Professional Military Education. Leadership decisions made at the lowest level, empowering leaders to make decisions affecting morale and welfare, offering counseling in lieu of punishment, ensuring that discipline given is rehabilitative, rather than punitive in nature, working to promote individuals who perform as leaders and operators, rather than relying on cronyism for promotion within the ranks.
In short, a critical eye at the LD/OD environment and a carefully considered and implemented change plan starting at the lowest levels, rather than high-handed, knee-jerk reactions, are required to move forward in the nuclear enterprise.