MINOT AIR FORCE BASE Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James said the Air Force will “get to the bottom” of the recent test cheating scandal involving at least 34 intercontinental ballistic missile launch officers at a Montana air base.
James, who became Air Force Secretary only a month ago, also said at a news conference at Minot Air Force Base Wednesday that her intention besides investigation the cheating scandal is to develop a plan, possibly in the areas of morale and training, to make improvements.
This was James’ first visit to the Minot base and part of a fact-finding trip to other ICBM bases F.E. Warren AFB, Wyo., and Malmstrom AFB, Mont.
“I had always intended early on in my tenure as Secretary of the Air Force to come and visit with our nuclear forces because our nuclear forces are extremely important as part of our national security. I will admit I had not expected to be here today this early on,” she said.
Because of the events of last week James and Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh announced the investigation into the cheating scandal at Malmstrom she said, “I thought that it was important that I get on the road quickly and I go out and I see for myself some of what is going on within our nuclear forces.”
Besides visiting the ICBM bases this week, she said she’s also going to Barksdale AFB, La., headquarters of Air Force Global Strike Command.
James said the investigation into the cheating scandal is ongoing so she did not have any update on that specific event as of Wednesday.
“There will be updates forthcoming,” she said. She added that one of the immediate actions that she took was to direct the Office of Special Investigations, the trained investigative team, to put full resources against this to get to the bottom of it.
“Because of course, it was an important breach of integrity and we simply won’t stand for that in the Air Force so we’re going to get to the bottom of it and we’re going to get it done as quickly as possible and there will be updates forthcoming just not today,” she said.
James said she has been “very impressed” with the nuclear forces she has seen during her visit to the bases this week. “I’m impressed with what I’ve seen here at Minot,” she added.
At the bases, she said she has been meeting with leaders, focus groups, and officers and enlisted personnel. “I’ve done a lot of listening and I’ve learned a great deal about the mission,” she said.
Shortly before meeting with the media on Wednesday, she spoke to airmen with both the 5th Bomb Wing and the 91st Missile Wing at the Minot base and also spent time answering questions.
“Everything that I have learned and seen this week makes me even more confident that this was a failure of our airmen and their integrity but not a failure of the nuclear mission. The nuclear mission is safe and secure in everything I’ve seen this week,” she said.
“The airmen that I have met this week have been motivated they’ve been very motivated to executing the mission and they realize that this is an extremely important area safeguarding and maintaining these weapons and nuclear capabilities is tops with them. It certainly is tops for our Air Force,” she said.
“The pledge that I gave to all of them was that I intended as Secretary of the Air Force to give this whole area a very close review and sort of a persistent oversight going forward,” she said.
She said this may be her first visit but it won’t be my last. “I will be back to do my best to keep on top of this and make improvements,” she said.
She said Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., and other members of the congressional delegation have been very supportive of the Air Force and moving forward with the budget and of the national security.
Maj. Gen. Jack Weinstein, commander of 20th Air Force, and Hoeven were with James at the news conference.
“I remain very, very confident in the nuclear mission. Although this was a serious failure in terms of integrity of some of our people, we are going to get to the bottom of it, we hold people accountable and I’m taking this opportunity to learn about this mission and look for ways to improve upon it because it’s exceedingly important going into the future,” James said.
Hoeven said James did “a great town hall meeting” when she spoke to the men and women in uniform at Minot AFB.
“It’s unfortunate what happened at Malmstrom but it certainly no way reflects on all the great men and women who do it right every day,” Hoeven said. “As the Secretary said, she saw people here not only doing a fabulous job with the nuclear mission on the missile side but also on the bomb wing side. We have incredible people who do an incredible job every day.”
During her visits this week with military members, James said she did pick up on issues of morale that are troubling. “This is part of what I am looking into to help address,” she said. “I’ve learned a lot more about how the training is administered and there may be some changes that we can make in that regard to improve things and actually make the training better and more of a training environment,” she said.
She said training, in her opinion, is a learning environment which is different from an evaluation and in the nuclear forces those two things have come together. “I said last week that one so-called test doesn’t make or break anything because there are many checks and balances in the system. There are many different types of evaluations and inspections, and if we have a team of people that their entire future hinges on one particular test, I don’t think that’s a good atmosphere so I learned a lot about that this week.”
She said her top desire is within weeks to come up with a plan of ‘to do’ not to study but ‘to do’ so I’m going to be looking for concrete actions possibly in the area of morale, possibly in the area of training ways to make this better because I’m of the opinion even when something bad happens, you need to make it better. That’s where the good can come out of a bad situation,” James said.
James, who visited a missile field at another base during her trip this week, said, “Overall, the security of the system is strong. This was a failure on the part of integrity of some people, not on the part of the system.”
With her first step being to get a plan together within weeks, she said she will need to secure the support of the Secretary of Defense, although she said he is very interested in this whole arena. She said she also needs check in with key members of Congress to explain it.
“Then we intend to make that public and share that with all of you, with all of our airmen and most importantly, put into action the plan that we develop to make the improvements,” James said.
Weinstein and Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force James Cody are accompanying James on her visits to the bases.