Air Force Questions AP Reporting on Nuke Problems
The Air Force took aim at the Associated Press and its senior Pentagon reporter Robert Burns in an editorial that ran Tuesday in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle entitled “Nuke forces aren’t as bad as reporter said.” The editorial was written by lead Air Force spokesman Brig. Gen. Les Kodlick in response to an article Burns wrote Nov. 21 about problems within the nuclear career field.
Burns wrote about high courts-martial rates and increased numbers of administrative punishments within the nuclear field to include missileers in 2010 and 2011 citing a RAND report that was ordered by the Air Force. Burns reported that RAND researchers also found a high level of “burnout” within the nuclear force, which RAND defined as “feeling exhausted, cynical and ineffective on the job.”
The Associated Press report followed a series of stories that Burns wrote throughout the year that found problems throughout the Air Force’s nuclear enterprise to include a failed safety and security inspection. In October, Maj. Gen. Michael Carey, the commander of the 20th Air Force, the Numbered Air Force in charge of the Air Force’s intercontinental ballistic missile force, was fired for “personal misbehavior.”
Kodlick, the director of public affairs for the Air Force, focused his editorial on Burns’ Nov. 21 article saying that Burns left out key pieces of information and context in regards to the RAND study that was provided to the Associated Press. The Air Force issued the editorial solely to the Wyoming Tribune Eagle because it is the hometown newspaper for the 20th Air Force, said Lt. Col. John Sheets, a spokesman for Air Force Global Strike Command.
When contacted for comment about the Air Force’s editorial, Burns said: “I stand by the story in every detail.”
Kodlick leads his editorial by calling into question the Associated Press reporter’s credibility saying Burns “grossly exaggerated and distorted challenges affecting the Air Force’s nuclear force.”
“The premise of the article, the reporter’s assertion that Air Force nuclear troops are caught in an ongoing, downward spiral of morale, misconduct and misbehavior, is at best misleading and at worst willfully ignorant of data provided prior to publication,” Kodlick wrote.
Kodlick then questioned the usefulness of the study completed by RAND because it surveyed only 100 people out of a force of 10,000 over a three month period. Burns obtained a draft version of the report that has not been released publicly. Sheets said he did not know if the report would be released.
Burns highlighted a troubling spike in spousal abuse incidents in the Air Force nuclear community in 2010 when the 20th Air Force hit a peak of 21 per 1,000 people. The average Air Force rate for that year was 10.3 per 1,000 people. The AP’s story pointed out that the rate had dropped to 12.4 by 2012.
Burns’ article also cited spikes in courts-martial rates and administrative punishments within the ICBM force. “Courts-martial in the ICBM force, for example, were 129 percent higher than in the Air Force as a whole in 2011, on a per capita basis, and 145 percent higher in 2012,” Burns wrote.
Kodlick wrote in his editorial that spousal abuse rates and misconduct have declined since 2010. He questioned why Burns did not choose to emphasize that higher in his article.
“Mr. Burns includes an ever-so-brief mention of the misconduct trends in the 26th paragraph of the story, but he never actually says the rates are lower. Instead, he writes: “Administrative punishments are trending downward,” Kodlick wrote.
The director of Air Force public affairs said Burns was provided with additional context and information to the RAND study to include results from unit climate assessments and the Air Force Cultural Assessment Survey Tool. Kodlick questioned in his editorial why Burns chose not to use this information.
The Air Force provided the slides to Military.com of the presentation that Burns received by Lt. Gen. James Kowalski, the former commander of Global Strike Command. Data on the slides show slight gains from 2010 to 2012 in morale, according to the unit climate assessments and the survey tool that reached out to thousands of nuclear airmen.
Military.com asked Burns why he chose not to include this information. He responded saying:
“I did not use the AFCAST and Unit Climate Assessment materials because RAND told me it does not consider them comparable to its work, which was focused only on those officers and airmen who work in the missile fields as opposed to the wider population of wing personnel in the Air Force’s assessments. Also, the RAND approach was different, including the use of focus group discussions,” Burns said in an email to Military.com.
Morale within the Air Force nuclear career field is a problem that the Air Force has wrestled with since the end of the Cold War. Many of the officers in the nuclear career field have said it is difficult spending long shifts inside a missile silo in a North Dakota or Wyoming field with little to no expectation they will ever have to push the launch button.
The erosion within the Air Force’s nuclear community was highlighted in 2007 when a B-52 flew from Minot Air Force Base, N.D., to Barksdale Air Force Base, La., with six nuclear warheads mistakenly loaded on the wings. A year later Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne and Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. T. Michael Moseley were fired by former Defense Secretary Robert Gates for problems within the service’s nuclear enterprise.
Kodlick was unavailable for comment Wednesday for this article, according to the Air Force public affairs office in the Pentagon.