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Transition through innovation: Taking care of mission, Airmen and families

  • Published
  • By 1st Lt. Emily Seaton
  • 20th Air Force

As the world adapted to the challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, so too did the intercontinental ballistic missile force within 20th Air Force. For decades the missile operators, or missileers, pulled alerts in a 3-day ATO rotation model (alert, travel, off-day), but to mitigate the risk COVID presented, the force had to make some changes. Those changes opened the door to more creative ideas to better meet the needs of the mission while caring for Airmen and families.

“In [response to] COVID, crews were deployed for two weeks and had to drastically adjust training and quarantine to meet the mission,” explained Lt. Col. Joseph Shannon, 10th Missile Squadron commander at Malmstrom Air Force Base, Montana. “During this initial model, [operations leaders] began to critically think of a better way to accomplish this mission while mitigating the strain on the crew force and maintain their proficiency beyond the pandemic. COVID allowed the opportunity for nuclear ops to explore something beyond the ATO [schedule] that was in place prior to beginning COVID operations.”

As we learned more about the virus and administered vaccines, sending two crews out to each missile alert facility for two consecutive weeks evolved into one-week alerts and from there to squadron deployments.  

Historically, each missile squadron is responsible for manning five of the 15 MAFs and underground launch control centers in their wing’s area of responsibility. To create a better battle rhythm once operations began returning to a new normal, the three ICBM wings implemented squadron deployments. In this new construct, one squadron becomes responsible for manning all 15 of their wing’s MAFs/LCCs for a week at a time rather than just their traditional five.

This created a pattern of whole squadrons pulling alert together every three weeks, which allowed for more predictability, unit cohesion within the operations groups and more consistent interaction with the same missile security forces squadrons, facility managers and chefs.

On the flip side though, “the unprecedented predictability of squadron deployment rotations to all wing launch control centers is matched by its equally unprecedented inflexibility,” said Lt. Col. Ryan Graves, 320th Missile Squadron director of operations at F.E. Warren AFB, Wyoming. ”The challenges of maintaining our alert force during the COVID-19 pandemic demanded immediate adaptation to mitigate health risks, but over time our missile units used the dynamic environment to embrace a culture of innovation.  As the threat of COVID-19 continues to wind down, [we] will move towards a hybrid scheduling option capitalizing on the lessons learned from the many scheduling constructs utilized over the past several years.”

This leads to the next change in the ICBM force alert structure as they look to align with the shifts the Air Force has made from the Air Expeditionary Force deployment construct to the Air Force Force Generation (AFFORGEN) construct. While missileers typically do not deploy oversees due to their mission requiring them to be deployed-in-place stateside, the operations groups within 20th Air Force have found ways to apply the AFFORGEN concept.

 “Adopting the AFFORGEN model in a three-week cycle of Prepare, Ready/Commit, and Reset has allowed us to create an overall stability to the deployment schedule – operators know when they will be deployed, when they will train, and when they will be in rest status,” said Col. Tory Kindrick, 341st Operations Group commander at Malmstrom AFB. “Ensuring that squadron commanders retain the decision authority to deploy forces within their ready/commit week allows flexibility to meet the needs of the mission and our people, which is the bread and butter of command.” 

This flexibility is displayed with each wing’s approach to accomplishing the mission.

Within the 341st Operations Group squadron deployment construct, the 10th Missile Squadron has “implemented flight deployments where each tactical flight took control of a squadron AOR, providing a sustainable war fighting construct, continuity, and true ownership of each AOR by a given flight commander,” explained Shannon. “Which leads us to the healthy state that we reside today.”

The 90th Operations Group at F.E. Warren AFB plans to return to the traditional model of each squadron manning just their five MAFs/LCCs. The alerts will continue to be a week long, but with the introduction of “multiple, optional changeover days and return home travel for topside periods,” as described by Col. Jared Nelson, the 90th Operations Group commander. The aim is to create a better schedule for those with unique situations who may have been at a disadvantage with the rigid 7-day alert construct: nursing mothers, mil-to-mil couples, missileers with young children and single parents.

As Lt. Col. Eric Buss, 321st Missile Squadron commander at F.E. Warren AFB, puts it, “every crewmember has a unique story and circumstance.  Our missileers, facility managers, and squadron staff make sacrifices every day, ensuring our critical mission never fails...having the flexibility to accommodate their personal lives is a force multiplier.  As a father of three, with a deployed military spouse and daughter who requires constant monitoring, our family is no exception.  Our squadron members are not a commodity taken for granted and we will do everything in our power ensuring the mission is accomplished while meeting the needs and taking care of our Airmen and families."

The 91st Operations Group at Minot AFB, North Dakota will leverage the added flexibility afforded to commanders and maintain the current squadron deployment construct where they have seen the most gains in unit cohesion, command and control, and mission ownership. For example, their 742d Missile Squadron “takes the entire missile field for a week, owns mission execution, debriefs the mission during our training week and gets better every deployment wave” explains Lt. Col. Amanda Filiowich, 742d Missile Squadron commander. “Additionally, commanders have the freedom of maneuver to accommodate special circumstances and family situations on a case-by-case basis which positively affects morale.”

The differing methods reflect flexibility, but also a focus on creating a better environment for Airmen and families while still meeting the core AFFORGEN purpose of balancing today’s combatant commander needs and building high-end readiness for the future.