The man with the toughest job in the USAF: General Robin Rand, recently nominated to be the first four-star commander of Air Force Global Strike Command and fix problems in the service’s nuclear enterprise (USAF photo). 

The Air Force is taking another step towards fixing its troubled nuclear enterprise, by naming General Robin Rand to head Global Strike Command.  Pending Senate confirmation, Rand will become the first four-star to head the organization, which is responsible for the service’s ICBMs and nuclear-capable bombers.  Plans to elevate the AFGSC commander’s billet from a three-star position were unveiled last November by then-Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, who said it was “essential” to “change the cultural prestige of the nuclear mission” and make it commensurate with other operational areas.

Mr. Hagel’s statement was merely the latest acknowledgment that the Air Force’s nuclear units had suffered from years of neglect, resulting in a string of embarrassments, beginning with the inadvertent “transfer” of nuclear-tipped cruise missiles from North Dakota to Louisiana in 2007.  Despite promises to fix issues with training, security, personnel retention and other issues, the cruise missile debacle was followed by more problems, ranging from failed nuclear inspections to drug use and a cheating scandal among missile crew members.

Creation of AFGSC was supposed to bring a new measure of focus and accountability to the nuclear mission, and it appeared to be a step in the right direction.  Indeed, the alignment of the service’s strategic forces under a single command was a tacit admission that the Air Force made a major mistake when Strategic Air Command was inactivated in the early 1990s.

Throughout the Cold War, SAC was responsible for the nation’s strategic bomber force, aerial tanker fleet, land-based ICBMs and key strategic reconnaissance assets.  SAC training and performance standards were the stuff of legend; if the Air Force regulation for a particular program or function covered 20 pages, the Strategic Air Command “supplement” was often four or five times longer.  One thing was certain: anyone assigned to the command never lacked for guidance, and with SAC’s exacting inspection programs, problems were ruthlessly identified and fixed.

Indeed, the current Air Force Chief of Staff, General Mark Welsh, has admitted the service made a big mistake in getting rid of SAC.  Give him credit for honesty.  For decades, his predecessors insisted the days of SAC were past, and the bomber force was better off as a part of Air Combat Command (which is dominated by fighter pilots) and missiles were a natural fit for Air Force Space Command.  In both cases, assets that were at the forefront of SAC’s warfighting capabilities took a back seat in their new commands.  Expertise in the nuclear mission began to deteriorate, as older hands retired and younger airmen sought escape from career fields viewed as a dead end.

For his marching orders, General Welsh has instructed General Rand to “go become the next Curt LeMay,” a reference to the legendary general (and later, Air Force Chief of Staff) who transformed SAC from a hodgepodge of poorly trained units into the nation’s preeminent strike force.  Through much of the 1950s, the bulk of the nation’s nuclear deterrent rested with SAC, and there was no doubt the command and its aggressive leader were up to the task.

Almost 70 years later, Rand’s personal charisma and dynamic leadership style made him a good choice to lead Global Strike Command.  But is he another Curtis LeMay?  The obvious answer is “no,” since no one Air Force leader–before or since–has equaled LeMay’s blend of courage, persistence, determination and vision.  General LeMay’s mission was to transform SAC from an operational backwater into the nation’s nuclear shield and he succeeded brilliantly, through his knowledge of strategic operations, an almost-unlimited budget and sheer force of personality.

By those criteria, General Rand faces an uphill battle.  Since graduating from the Air Force Academy in 1979, Rand has spent most of his time as a fighter pilot, including three consecutive tours as a fighter wing commander between 2003 and 2007.  General Rand clearly has exemplary leadership skills, but he’ll need a little time to get up to speed on the mission of AFGSC and the particular needs of his bomber and missile crews.

There is also the matter of perception.  Rand is replacing a career bomber pilot (Lieutenant General Stephen Wilson) at Barksdale and don’t think that transition isn’t lost on the men and women of Global Strike Command.  For officers and NCOs who have spent their careers around Buffs, B-2s or the Minuteman III system, Rand’s appointment could be perceived as the “fighter mafia” simply reasserting its control.  While that assessment is probably unfair, it is something Rand will have to contend with as he takes command.

In terms of resources, General Rand will inherit a force that is a fraction of what SAC once was, and long in the tooth, to boot.  The “newest” B-52 rolled off the Boeing assembly line more than 50 years ago; the Minuteman IIIs of our ICBM force date from the 1970s and even the relatively youthful B-2 stealth bombers are in their third decade of service.  And unlike the early 50s, Rand will not have a good chunk of the defense budget to fund upgrades and expansion.  Air Force leadership has promised more money for infrastructure improvements, personnel programs and limited aircraft upgrades, but it’s a trickle of what is actually required.

As Air Force Magazine (subscription required) recently observed, the nation’s nuclear deterrent has been underfunded and under-prioritized for more than 20 years.  The consequences of these decisions are now on display around the world; North Korea joined the nuclear club almost a decade ago, and Iran’s entry is just a matter of time, even with the “deal” recently reached between Tehran and the Obama Administration.  A revitalized American deterrent force could be a stabilizing force in a dangerous world, but that won’t happen with Mr. Obama in the White House.

That’s why General Rand faces an even tougher job that the one given to Curt LeMay in the late 1940s. Not only is he on new ground in terms of mission responsibilities, Rand must also find a way to revitalize our land-based nuclear forces in an era of sequestration, and under a commander-in-chief who would gladly eliminate our entire nuclear arsenal if he could only find a way.

Saying the new leader of AFGSC faces a hard slog would be a monumental understatement.  His prospects for success are decidedly slim, and the margin for error is approximately zero.

Good luck, General Rand.  You’ll need it.