Tag Archives: Missileers

Nerd Warriors in Space


 This site contains my opinions and ideas only, not the opinions or ideas of any organization I work for. It’s my idea playground, and I’m inviting you in. Welcome!

When I was very, very young I remember watching a particular movie. In it, the protagonists were misfits, non-athletic, good with computers, had social problems, bad hygiene, a style that might optimistically be called “kindergarten,” were generally pretty smart, and came from varied backgrounds. The bad guys were the establishment, the jocks, the moneyed set, people with good teeth who had all the complexity of a child’s coloring book, and they were very, very white. The setting was a college campus, and the good guys needed to somehow affiliate with a fraternity. The bad guys didn’t want this to happen, and that pretty much sums up the beginning of “Revenge of the Nerds.”

Which is why I felt like I was reading the movie’s premise when I looked at SpaceNews.com this week. This post , quoting comments from ANOTHER Air Force general, was, if not surprising, then disappointing. It’s also concerning and astonishing, because here is someone who obviously hasn’t been in U.S. military space for very long, but certainly wants everyone to know he’s the warrior in charge. Like a jock might. And marking territory is very important to a jock, so why not mark the very people that he is supposed to lead?

Let’s cover the disappointment first. The assumption that space operators in the USAF don’t understand they are war fighters is insulting and wrong. Let’s assume for the moment that someone who is smart enough to work in the military and in a position of not having to worry too much about being shot at while ensuring the right people stay alive and the targets are identified/eliminated, is probably someone who is aware of being part of a warrior culture. And let’s not forget the force multiplication that normally comes with military space operations.

A SBIRS crew, for example, knows how critical it is to get information to the people who need it quickly, and may potentially not just save a comrade’s neck–they could potentially save millions. A GPS crew knows timing is important. Their actions allows other warfighters the luxury of staying out of harm’s way, while sending expensive explosive packages very precisely to those nice people in hardened bunkers. Amazon’s got nuthin’ on them.

Just because they are in front of a screen at a ground station, doesn’t mean they aren’t doing their duty. It certainly doesn’t mean they aren’t under potential attack. Just ask the Missileers in Montana, North Dakota, and Wyoming. Maybe it just means they are smarter. Just sayin’… but because I used to be one, I know better…at least on that score.

The concern and astonishment comes because, here is yet another general, who isn’t from any space background, who doesn’t understand space operators do have simulators. I think there’s a rather elaborate SBIRS simulator in Vandenberg for students. And I’m fairly certain the space operators on console have their scripts and sims when working in the real world too. I know SBIRS operators get a lot of real-world training–maybe even more than someone who flies a target through the air.

Each one of the space systems that operators work with has proficiency standards. Each space operations squadron has scripts, instructors, and evaluators. Does that mean things go perfectly? No, but it does mean crews are ready for whatever comes their way. The crews are presented with scenarios which may mix things that have happened in the past with things that are likely to happen.

By the way, the whole “baking in intelligence”–how the hell do you think space ops crews like those for SBIRS operate? Because these systems are considered low density and high demand, good intelligence is not optional. Does anyone really think space ops crews aren’t talking with another type of nerd, the intelligence weenie?

So, enough of this. I’ve seen it before. When I was in, we had bomber/fighter generals leading us too. For the most part, they ignored us and let us do our work. But I fear for of our space operators today. The jocks are in charge, and want to make sure the nerds learn the ways of the jock.

When will our beloved space crews ever get an outstanding leader? Good luck, folks!



Take the Nuclear Weapons System Challenge


Just a few more posts to share with you about the cheating nuclear launch officers at Malmstrom Air Force Base.  The first post from Time Swampland is meant to give you an idea of the types of questions on weapons system test the missileer crews take every month.  The weapons system test is an unclassified open-book test.  It challenges people not necessarily through what they know (although many missileers know a lot about the weapons system), but with their “status tracking.”

Status tracking is a fancy term for keeping track of all the things being thrown at a missileer while he or she is at work.  Many of us had different ways to track status.  Some were elaborate, others were simple.  My way was to use cereal box strips as bookmarks for Technical Order (T.O.) pages in which actions that needed to be done could be easily seen.  If a bookmark remained, that meant an action or two remained on the pages to be accomplished.

The launch control center’s computer and screens were key to helping track launch facility status.  But other things, such as overhead lights shutting off, a “popping” noise (circuit breaker), or change in air pressure were also important for noting changes in status–and then knowing which section of the T.O. to reference so things could be made normal again.  Even though it’s harder to maintain status tracking during written tests because there are no computers, etc., it can still be successfully accomplished.  Status tracking is key to how a missileer stays on top to all the things being thrown at them, either at work or during tests and simulator rides.

So, try to answer a few example weapons system test questions.  It’s easy when you have a T.O. around.  I was very good at it–to the point of noticing status pop up on the computer screens before alarms went off.  It’s amazing how much of this stuff stays in memory, even when it’s been over a decade since I worked with it…. It’s a curse, I tell ya!!!

Now on to the other post.  The Scholars & Rogues post is more debatable to me.  The premise is:  missileers are sad and demoralized because they can’t launch their missiles.  I disagree with this premise.  Missileers did look forward to launching missiles–but it was launching them from Vandenberg AFB during a “Glory Trip” test shot.  This testing is a way to ensure the Minuteman missiles in inventory are still working just fine.

The reason for tracking status was to insure the missiles were ready to launch.  The reason for the all the tests missileers take is to ensure they can launch the missiles when necessary.  A corollary reason to that is to ensure the missiles never launch unintentionally.

But NO ONE I know looked forward to the circumstances in which missileers are forced to “turn keys.”  We all understood the consequences of such an action are quite terrible.  We also figured we would never be the aggressor in such a scenario and that whatever’s causing us to turn keys is already on its way to destroying our homes, cities, and country.

So, I know I looked forward to a time where there wouldn’t have to be a “nuclear gun” aimed at another country’s head.  Others might’ve seen things differently–but I don’t think anyone relished the thought of launching their weapons in the heat of battle.

And low morale, while a big problem, certainly is no excuse for cheating.  It also doesn’t address how officers might be encouraged to cheat.

We shall not Lie, Cheat, or Steal (except when we do)–Opinion

Of course I know the rocket doesn't go there.  Don't start!

Of course I know the rocket doesn’t go there. Don’t start!

In Case you have “Flexible” morals

I shouldn’t have to say the obvious, but in case anyone wonders:  cheating is wrong.  The fact that 34 United States Air Force officers cheated on a test, with some of them also involved in drugs, is very, very wrong.  This post is an opinion piece, one describing the environment I lived in (I’m pretty sure current Missileers are still living in).  This post will also suggest why these officers felt compelled to cheat (but it’s not sympathetic to them).

I used to be a Missileer, which just so happens to be the term of endearment used for those 34 officers, too (although I can think of a few other terms for them).  I was a Missileer a long time ago, pulling nearly 300 alerts before my tour was up, so I’m sure some things have changed in this career-field.  But I’m also pretty sure some things haven’t.  Because Missileers, while coming from a fairly humble but important mission, have some fairly headstrong traditions and operational doctrines.

The missileer’s lot

The Missileer is faced with doing the impossible every day, and paid to do it.  A Missileer must conduct, as humanly as possible, 24/7 operations which are error-free.  “Impossible!” you say?  Maybe, but the idea of error-free operations and reality can come fairly close.  Do people in this career-field make mistakes?  Yes.  I know I did—and sometimes I got paperwork for them.  But I write all this only to show there is a certain amount of pressure on the Missileer day-to-day that many, many other people might not be able to comprehend, nor tolerate.

Such an error-free philosophy extends everywhere for the Missileer during a nuclear missile assignment.  Testing, which is conducted monthly, consists of three kinds of tests, plus a “monitored” simulation (an actual simulated trainer where the hardware matched what was in the field).  Missileers are expected to pass these tests as close to error-free as they can.  Anyone receiving below a 90% grade on ANY of those tests was going to be talked with, and possibly retrained.  And there are a lot of other tests and inspections at any given time which Missileers must overcome.  The majority do.

The rationale for the error-free standard?  NUKES.

The crux of the biscuit

But such a philosophy and standard also has drawbacks.  It makes some people nervous about their careers.  Some Missileers just are competitive and want to stay at a 100% test average during their entire missile assignment (supposedly it’s possible—I wasn’t one of those).  But this nervousness doesn’t just impact the crew-force.  It permeates the entire nuclear officer structure.  Squadron commanders in charge of underperforming crew members get looked at closely.  Group commanders worry about squadrons in which the test average is lower than 90%.  Wing commanders whose wings failed inspections are routinely sidelined.

What I’m saying is, there’s a lot of micromanagement that goes on, because “leadership” doesn’t want to be the one to fail and they certainly don’t want to be responsible for officers in their charge who do fail.  So Missileer crew members, day-to-day, become disenfranchised and aren’t allowed to make decisions unless vetted and printed in a “Technical Order.”  Squadron commanders aren’t allowed to “command” a squadron in the way a traditional Air Force squadron commander might (in case they make the “wrong” decisions).  Missileer group commanders don’t really serve as a “barrier” between wing commanders and squadron commanders—they’re more like a direct cable connection, someone who facilitates bad habits of leaders nervous about their position in Missileer life.

This kind of nervousness got so bad, that at one point the missile wings had GPS radios installed into crew vehicles.  These were the vehicles that transported Missileers to and from their Missile Alert Facility to pull alert.  The whole idea was to ensure crews didn’t speed to and from the base (and therefore not getting in an accident).  I think the official line was to help pinpoint stuck crews, but anyone pulling crew could see through that.

the “cameron” factor

So Missileers are an uptight bunch, micromanaged, tracked, and “Monday Morning Quarterbacked” in everything they do, stuck on bases that aren’t in very interesting locations, very nervous about when the next mistake is going to happen.  Much like Cameron from “Ferris Bueller.”  What does this have to do with the cheating?

EVERYTHING!  The disenfranchisement of the crew force from decisions is the single biggest problem.  Throughout a Missileer’s training, everything’s about following the technical order.  If, during an evaluation, a Missileer fails to “check off” a step in a technical order, they will be assessed an error—even if that step was accomplished.  Missileers are told to “stay within the lines of the coloring book.”  Very little emphasis is given to independent thought.  Much of what the Missileer does is scrutinized.

the PUPPET-MASTERS’ disappearing act

This is what puzzles me about the situation which the cheating Missileers are in.  Almost everyone in a leadership position gets into the day-to-day business of the Missileer.  But apparently no one in a leadership position knew about the cheating?


This cheating occurred in a proportion which is unprecedented.  It was encouraged by someone and grew to somehow become the epidemic it is now.  And someone had to help fertilize that growth.  The cheating had to be shown to be acceptable, as it had been going on for a while.  With all the micro-management going on, there may be many, many hands in the pie—and not just crew members.  But I don’t know if we will hear anything else about this story regarding others being involved.

So what SHOULD happen?  Well, first a story to show the precedent.

the flip side

During my crew time, an unfortunate crew managed to flip their crew vehicle on the way out to alert.  They were actually doing the right thing, and driving very slowly because it was the season’s first frost.  But then, they hit a patch of ice.  Their vehicle spun slowly, hitting the gravel on side of the road sideways, and slowly rolled over onto its top into the steep ditch next to the road.  No one was hurt.

But the crew was punished.  They, their flight commander, squadron commander, group commander, and, I think, wing commander were all flown to FE Warren Air Force Base in Cheyenne, Wyoming to accept responsibility for something that was obviously beyond their control.  NO ONE in the leadership chain accepted the accident as not preventable.

Using the same sort of logic, then, if you have Missileers deliberately deceiving everyone else with their proficiency in nuclear weapons expertise, then at the very least the same sort of thing should be happening (I am not saying I agree with this kind of thought process, but I’m using precedent), because:  NUKES (and the lack of a truly qualified person operating them).

Each Missileer, the flight commanders, squadron commanders, group commander and wing commander should be flown out and “talked with.”  Not only that!  Since it’s obvious the Evaluation and training squadrons were involved (someone within had to provide the answers), those commanders should be flown out, too.  This would be in line with the typical “knee-jerkiness” Missileer upper echelon managers are known for.

Fix it

But what really needs to happen is a gutting and total re-working of the Missileer command structure and philosophy.   At the very least, the Air Force needs an Independent Review Team to come in, and investigate practices encouraging dishonest behavior.  Then the Air Force needs to adopt the team’s recommendations, not dismiss them with rationalizations.  The technical expertise IS there, the people have been trained, and as long as there are Missileers doing the right thing, the mission will succeed.

Many Missileers ARE doing the right thing in spite of all the things going on.  Missileers who are being punished in this debacle (re-taking a test—what does that really prove?) but display integrity every day.  Those are the ones who should be the standard setters.  And they shouldn’t be punished.  Because dropping the hammer to dispense some indiscriminate justice just says to a rational person “It doesn’t matter if you’re dishonest or not–it matters that it LOOKS like we are doing something about it.  So re-take the test–Shut up and color!”  Is it any wonder there’s talk of “burnout” in the Missileer corps?

Don’t worry, be happy!

There are those who say “burnout” is an inaccurate description of the Missileer attitude.  That things don’t need to change.  Well, they’re right—it’s not burnout, it’s just the way the Missile Wings have conducted their business every day since I’ve worked for them.  Every problem is approached with a hammer, and morale was low in my time and continues to be low.  It’s a Missileer fact of life (although there are a few Missileers who actually enjoy it—they’re called OGV).  And if a person is not worried about the mission failing, then things don’t need to change.  What occurs as a result of this “head in the sand” mentality will be tragic.  It will be a great display of the “leadership” failing their subordinates, the Missileers, and more importantly, the mission of keeping the nuclear arsenal under control.

In the meantime, I haven’t really heard anything about how the Missileers will earn the public’s trust again.  Apparently retaking the test is the way to go :-|.  I don’t envy these guys right now.