Air Force Featured Stories

For missileers, perfection is the goal

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. David Salanitri
  • Secretary of the Air Force Public Affairs
One of the three core values in the Air Force is “excellence in all we do.” Missileers take this core value to heart, and for good reason.

"When perfection is the goal, we find excellence along the way," said Capt. Mary Yelnicker, an instructor at the Air Force Weapons School at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev.

Since the 1960s, a small career field of missileers has been out of public sight, working deep underground, manning the nation’s nuclear launch control centers. These missileers, responsible for 450 nuclear missiles, are ready to carry out the orders of the president of the United States, 24 hours a day, seven days week.

In journalism, a misplaced comma may be considered to be a minor mistake with little to no consequences. For an Air Force missileer however, a small mistake can have the potential for major consequences. Missileers must be proficient, focused and on high readiness alert at all times while on operational alert.

The mental and physical demands of alert duty are achieved by missileers through rigorous initial and recurring training.

All missileers attend six months of intense initial qualification training before proceeding to an operational unit. Once missileers arrive at their unit, they will attend mission qualification training and certify on their readiness before unit leaders. This will be just the beginning of operational training, as continuous monthly training is required for missileers to maintain proficiency and readiness.

Monthly training consists of approximately two days of classroom training on emergency war orders, weapons systems operations and codes control. Classroom training concludes with three 30-question tests. The minimum passing score is 90 percent, but 100 percent is the expectation. A third day of training includes a four-hour simulator ride in the missile procedures trainer. Any test score lower than a 90 percent or a substandard performance score in the missile procedures trainer will automatically restrict the missileer from performing missile alert duties and cause him or her to be enrolled in re-certification training.

“This recurring training is critical to our continued proficiency,” Yelnicker said. “The span of responsibility is so huge, I needed the recurring training to maintain proficiency.”

The demanding education and evaluation process requirement adds up during a traditional four-year assignment to a missile crew.

“By the time you finish your crew time, you’ll be exposed to at least 5,000 questions in these four years,” said Col. Zannis Pappas, the Nuclear and Missile Operations career field manager.

In addition to the required monthly recurring certification tests, missileers receive numerous tests and evaluations during Numbered Air Force, major command and local inspections as well as nuclear surety inspections. Units are subjected to two major inspections per year on average.

Pappas stressed the importance of evaluations and inspections, as tools to help commanders evaluate mission effectiveness.

“If commanders see a lack of proficiency, they need to take action, which is what you saw in Minot (AFB),” he said, referring to a recent decertification of 17 missileers from the 91st Operations Group at Minot AFB, N.D.

A key component to the Air Force’s mission is rapid response. Pappas pointed out that this is no different in the nuclear enterprise.

When it comes down to making the decision of restricting a missileer for potentially subpar performance, Pappas said one question is important: “Do I trust this guy to be in charge of 10 nuclear warheads?”

“If a missileer does not perform according to established standards, it’s the responsibility of the commander to take action until the missileer demonstrates that he can perform as expected” said Pappas, who’s been around the nuclear missile mission for most of his 28 years in the Air Force.

“Our mission is nuclear deterrence and the nation depends on us to maintain safe, secure and effective nuclear weapons," he said. "In this mission, there is no room for incomplete knowledge or substandard performance. Period. That’s part of the missileers’ creed,” Pappas said, grabbing a framed copy of the creed from the wall in his office.

“This business is based on readiness and high standards of performance,” he said. “Thank God all these years we did not have to execute our warfighting mission, because nuclear deterrence works. But if deterrence fails, we’re ready to carry out the orders of the president of the United States. That’s why inspections and evaluations are very critical in our business.”