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Training America's frontline missile operators

  • Published
  • By Dianne Moffett
  • Air Education and Training Command Public Affairs
Along a 45-mile stretch of California coastline is a beach devoid of ocean-front property. You won't find lavish resorts or flashy homes owned by the rich and famous here.

Instead, you'll find Airmen training in austere, submarine-like capsules. These above-ground capsules are where Intercontinental Ballistic Missile launch officers learn to operate launch control centers that are usually 40-60 feet below the earth's surface and at the heart of America's intercontinental ballistic missile force.

Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., is home to these Airmen and it's where the 392nd Training Squadron provides initial skills training for ICBM launch officers.

Lt. Col. Mike Kamorski is commander of the 392nd TRS and he sums up its mission in five words: Training America's frontline missile operators.

Day zero

On day zero, the Friday before training begins; students go through eight hours of orientation and are introduced to the Personnel Reliability Program. PRP requirements are governed by Department of Defense and Air Force regulations to ensure that each person who performs duties involving nuclear weapons meets the highest standards of reliability. Each student is responsible for his or her own reliability and the reliability of fellow Airmen--a 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week assignment.

Kamorski said the most important part of day zero is the first question each Airman must answer: This job involves the execution of nuclear weapons. Can you do that?

If the student says no, the commander said he needs to know as soon as possible so he can link the appropriate resources to help reconcile their issues. Resources such as a judge advocate, chaplain, or mental health clinician are available and can help the student determine if he or she is qualified for ICBM training.

The commander interviews each student to assess their reliability and to ensure they're willing to execute nuclear weapons if ordered. He follows up with one more interview before graduation.

"As part of the interview, we have a very candid discussion about the weapons; what the students' thoughts are about nuclear weapons; whether they have any reservations or hesitations, and we talk through it all," Kamorski said.

"We need to make sure these folks are 100 percent reliable to operate the ICBM weapon system that has been a deterrent force for the past 60 years," he said. "It is a very reliable weapon system and it's a credible deterrent - the folks who come through this squadron make sure of that."

Kamorski said the interviews are pretty rigorous and typically run between 20 and 45 minutes each.

"Not every Airman is cut out to be an ICBM launch officer," he said. "Some students fail to meet the extremely high reliability standards required to qualify as a missileer. When I qualify a student under PRP, I'm telling the gaining commander at one of our missile wings that this individual has what it takes to operate nuclear weapons -- it is on my word and I take it very seriously," Kamorski said.

Personnel Reliability Program

Whether the students are training or performing their actual duties at their wing, launch officers must always maintain their PRP status.

Potentially disqualifying information, which can be anything that affects a person's reliability, is crucial to PRP qualification. PRP is a non-punitive program, however, sometimes the information collected during the qualification process results in a person becoming ineligible for PRP duty. Other times, life events occur that impact personnel who have already qualified under PRP and their status needs to be suspended temporarily or permanently.

Capt. Thomas Perry is currently the PRP monitor for the 392nd. Perry said going up and down on PRP (on and off PRP status) is understood by the commander and is inevitable.

A traffic ticket, financial problems, drug or alcohol problems, mental health issues, major life changes, and family issues must be reported to the unit PRP monitor.

"At first glance, you might think it's a negative, but it's actually the best tool the commander has to make sure he's putting the most reliable folks out there to do the job," Perry said.

If a significant life event occurs for an Airman on PRP, like their father passes away or a child is born, Perry said the commander has the ability to tell the student to go take care of business and come back when they are 100 percent.

90 % or above

Training America's frontline missile operators is not an easy task. The 392nd TRS maintains high standards and the minimum passing rate for a frontline ICBM launch officer is 90 percent, although perfection is the expectation.

"If you get 90 percent, we'll look at you and ask why?" Kamorski said, "The expectation is 100 percent. These are nuclear weapons, it's a lot to ask, but there's a lot at stake--many meet that expectation, most exceed it."

Three groups of 30 students go through the schoolhouse at one time and approximately 180 officers are certified each year. The ICBM launch officer course is 100 training days and requires 800 hours of classroom and simulation training before graduation.

Training is divided into three phases that intertwine throughout the duration of the course. The three phases include academic classroom training on the weapon and communications systems, emergency war order training, and hands-on simulator training in the missile procedures trainer.

The instructors who train at this schoolhouse have performed duty as launch officers at one of the three bases where students are assigned upon completion of their training - Malmstrom AFB, Mont., Minot AFB, N.D., or F. E. Warren AFB, Wyo. These instructors come back to provide the highest quality training to new missile launch officers.

100 days and 800 hours of training

The 800 hours of training starts in the classroom and culminates in the missile procedures trainer where students must complete 198 hours in the simulator. The MPT is a $9.7 million replica of an actual launch control center and due to its shape, it's known as the capsule. The capsule is submarine-like because it's dark; everything is painted haze grey and it has very limited room to move about.

At the helm of the capsule are two pilot-looking seats aligned in front of an intricate set of control panels, switches and computer screens.

Here, student officers are assigned crew positions and partners at the beginning of training. All students rotate through commander and deputy positions, but one becomes commander and the other is assigned as his or her deputy for their end-of-course evaluation. The officers train using technical order manuals. The TOs, as they're called, are as thick as law books and weigh more than 10 pounds each.

The officers go through simulation training together in the capsule, spending up to five hours a day together and de-briefing with instructors for an hour or so after their training.

Kamorski compared ICBM training to flying. He said before teaching a pilot to fly, they have to know and understand how every system on that aircraft functions: fuel, avionics, navigation, landing gear--they have to understand the whole system thoroughly.

"Operating ICBMs is very similar; officers need to fully understand how the different systems and subsystems come together to form the complete nuclear operations picture," Kamorski said.

Capt. Kevin Hummert is one of the 392nd TRS instructors. He completed training at Vandenberg AFB in 2005 and returned as an instructor in 2010 after performing duties at Malmstrom.

"It doesn't take a technical background to get through ICBM training." Hummert said. "There are students who are theater and English majors, engineers and scientists, all running the same job.

"The students are taught to follow a checklist. And if you follow the checklist correctly, it will take care of you," he said.

"It's more about knowing how to integrate the knowledge and employing those regulations appropriately and correctly that's the key as opposed to the technical nature of it. A lot of the training also involves interacting with a computer," Hummert said.

1st Lt. Ashley Wolfe, an ICBM training student, will head to Malmstrom AFB after graduating from the course. She said the instructors at the 392nd provided her with a good foundation.

"All through training, during the MPT debriefs, the instructors go over what we did correctly or incorrectly and they spend a lot of time with us breaking down every step so we get it right," she said.

Wolfe said the instructors are very patient which creates an environment where students are free to ask questions.

"They all want to help and make sure you understand the process completely so you're ready to do the job when you leave training," she said.

Advice for future missileers

In order to continue to fortify the nation's strength and international stability, the Air Force's missile launch officers have to think about the weapon system they are about to operate and the fire power that's in their hands, said Hummert. And they must all be serious about that responsibility.

"There's no room for incomplete knowledge or substandard performance in our profession," Hummert said. "Everyday perfection is going to be demanded of you and you must be willing to meet those challenges."

Kamorski said the 392nd TRS strives for uncompromising standards in operational discipline and encourages a culture of precision, reliability and self-assessment through its leadership and training.

"We are the silent sentinels," said Hummert, "We don't do it for the fame or glory; we don't have flyovers or airshows. We go out there, and quietly do our jobs. Not a lot of people know about us, especially if we are doing our job right."

Just like the unspoiled beach along the Vandenberg coastline, the 392nd operates like a complex and dynamic ecosystem. No matter how austere or unassuming the environment, the squadron relies on a rigid set of interlocking conditions to ensure the mission is carried out.