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Following scandal, Air Force sets incentive pay for nuclear missile force

An unarmed U.S. Air Force LGM-30G Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile launches during an operational test at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., Dec. 17, 2013. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Yvonne Morales)

The Air Force is putting its money where its mouth is: Beginning Oct. 1, officers and enlisted personnel in its beleaguered nuclear missile force will get new financial incentives of up to $300 per month.

The move is part of the service’s effort to change the culture for personnel who operate some of the world’s most dangerous weapons, following a cheating scandal that embarrassed the Air Force earlier this year. Air Force Secretary Deborah James announced them Monday at the Air Force Association’s annual Air and Space Conference.

The move isn’t unexpected, but reaffirms that James and other senior Air Force leaders were serious about altering the way an assignment in the nuclear missile force is perceived by rank-and-file personnel. Air Force officials said in January that dozens of officers overseeing nuclear missiles at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana had been caught either cheating on a monthly launch proficiency test, or knew others who had and did not report them. At least 82 ultimately received some form of discipline.

In the weeks afterward, James and Lt. Gen. Stephen Wilson, chief of Global Strike Command, promised to do whatever they could to restore trust with the missileers. Many of them felt that their job, once high-profile during the Cold War, was now unappreciated. James touched on that again in announcing the incentives.

“People assigned to these demanding and exclusive nuclear positions take on an extraordinary amount of responsibility, workload and inspection rigor for the world’s most lethal weapons,” James said. “The nuclear mission is our number one mission and we’re going to compensate our airmen accordingly.”

The so-called Force Improvement Plan launched following the scandal also has scrutinized bomber squadrons and nuclear security forces units, which guard silos across the Midwest where the nuclear missiles are kept and manned.

In another change, the Air Force said recently that the security forces will get new camouflage uniforms, cold-weather equipment and “personal protective equipment that has been redesigned with the missile field mission in mind.” Rank-and-file airmen requested them, along with an upgraded fleet of vehicles that would be safer and more comfortable on the narrow, icy roads around missile sites. The vehicle request is still under review.