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At The Desktop With The ICBM Button At The Ready

Typically, a two-person missile combat crew is on alert in an underground launch control center for 24 hours at a time monitoring their ICBMs, ready to launch them if directed. (U.S. Air Force photo/Master Sgt. Lance Cheung)
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  • by 1st Lt. Thomas Trask
    for 490th Missile Squadron
    Malmstrom AFB (AFPN) Oct 04, 2006
    Missile combat crews in the 490th Missile Squadron here are helping the 20th Air Force transform missile operations as crewmembers started performing 72-hour alerts using three-person crews Sept. 30. Twentieth Air Force Commander, Maj. Gen. Thomas F. Deppe, suggested the 72-hour alert initiative and directed one squadron at each 20th AF wing to test the program.

    Officials from 20th AF will evaluate the program's progress after three months to determine whether to implement the initiative across all of the missile squadrons.

    Within General Deppe's guidelines, each wing commander may implement the program as he prefers. The 490th MS will convert from a four-flight organizational structure to a three-flight structure to better schedule the longer alert periods.

    Historically, combat crews consisted of two officers -- one commander and one deputy commander -- who performed 24-hour alert shifts, not including transit time to and from missile alert facilities. Crewmembers in the 10th, 12th and 564th MS will continue to perform alerts on 24-hour rotations.

    The 490th MS crews, augmented with select crewmembers from the 341st Operations Support Squadron and 341st Operations Group Standardization and Evaluation element, will conduct alerts for 72-hour periods. Crews will consist of two commanders and one deputy commander, and will continue to operate the launch control capsule in two-person teams. Individual crewmembers will alternate time between the LCC and the MAF. During the test phase 19 crews, 57 total officers, will participate.

    The 72-hour alert schedule is built on a 45-day cycle. A benefit of the program is a more predictable schedule for crewmembers. Each 490th MS flight will post on alert together and eventually will schedule training together to meet operations requirements.

    Crews should expect a maximum of six alert periods in 45 days. Though crewmembers may see an increase in time-off alert, crewmembers may also see an increase in work hours during each cycle.

    "The biggest risk that jumps out to everyone is that it's different," said Lt. Col. Scott Fox, 12th MS commander, who was on the initial 20th AF project team to study the alert changes. "But the security forces members, facility managers and chefs go out for that many more days already."

    Another concern is crewmember down time.

    "People need to know that we're looking (at time off)," Colonel Fox said. "Even up through General Deppe; I heard him personally reinforce it. We need to try as hard as we can to come up with some protected amount of time off."

    "The plan is to have the first 48 hours, after returning from the field, reserved as hands off," said Lt. Col. David Mason, 490th MS commander.

    The program's longer work cycles are also of concern to crewmembers' spouses. Lt. Col. Doug Smith, 490th MS deputy commander, spoke with 10 spouses Sept. 19 to answer questions about the program and help defuse concerns about the program's effect on time spent with families.

    Officials also identified crewmember proficiency as a potential risk.

    "With two commanders to one deputy, that's a new ratio. We have to adjust our crew force to look like that ratio," Colonel Fox said. "That means some of the deputies are going to upgrade to commander potentially much earlier than they would have under the current construct. That's a risk. Some of them might not be ready at the 12-month point, which is about when we expect the deputy-to-commander transition to take place under the new system."

    Benefits of the plan include decreased driving time, with resultant fuel and vehicle maintenance savings, and increased crewmember interaction with enlisted Airmen. Crews currently are sequestered underground during the 24-hour alert period and have little face-to-face interaction with the teams they command in the missile complex.

    "With the 72-hour alert schedule, at least 12 hours of an alert is going to be spent topside where (crewmembers) can learn leadership," said Col. Sandy Finan, 341st Space Wing commander. "They can start developing leadership skills and interacting with the people they are leading."

    Colonel Mason hopes the trial period will help iron out any bugs and provide enough data and feedback for General Deppe.

    "All the planning is complete; now is the time to execute," Colonel Mason said. "This is a big change that affects the entire operations group and the way we conduct business. But I'm optimistic we'll adapt and move forward with the new alert structure if directed to do so after the demonstration period."

    The alert transformation is still being refined and there likely will be a few obstacles to overcome during the program's execution.

    "We've sat down; we've brainstormed; we've thought about it from every angle," said Lt. Col. David Bliesner, 341st Operations Group deputy commander. "There are going to be things that pop up and are consequences we didn't foresee. We're going to have to adjust to them on the fly."

    With so many changes taking place across the Air Force, 490th MS officials recognize that change is the way of the future.

    "The entire Air Force is changing," Colonel Finan said. "We've done 24-hour alerts for a very, very long time. We are creating history here, and we want to be the ones who lead that change."

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