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Air Force boss aimed deep at nuclear missile corps' ills

| Monday, July 14, 2014, 9:30 p.m.

WASHINGTON — When Deborah Lee James became top boss of the Air Force seven months ago, she had no inkling a nuclear crisis was brewing. But once it erupted in the form of exam cheating by dozens of missile launch officers, she quickly announced conclusions that no Air Force leader before her had dared state publicly.

The nuclear missile corps' problems run deep, she said, morale is “spotty” and forceful fixes are needed.

James reached those conclusions in January after a short visit to the three Air Force bases that operate intercontinental ballistic missiles, or ICBMs. She met not only with commanders but also with the rank and file, including enlisted airmen who keep the missiles running properly and junior officers trained to launch them.

“I walked away believing there was something systemic, cultural if you will, that went beyond cheating and (that's) why I felt like we needed to not just address cheating — yes, we have to fix that — but we need to go farther than that,” she said in an interview.

To her it seemed natural to acknowledge that publicly, although others in the Air Force had chosen not to.

“I hope and believe I am a straight talker,” she said. “I think it's better to just say it. Don't mince words. And so I thought it was important to just stand up publicly and say what seemed to be obvious to me.”

Her candor and crisis management have won praise from Republicans and Democrats.

“She has forged relationships with troops and listened to their inputs,” said Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon, R-Calif., who is chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. “She has identified shortfalls in ICBM leadership and made corrections. That is a sharp difference from the way Air Force leadership has handled these issues in the past.”

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