OFFUTT AIR FORCE BASE, Neb. - Through the Striker Trident nuclear officer exchange program, four hand-selected intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) officers, assigned to various Air Force Global Strike Command (AFGSC) units, are broadening their horizons by serving multi-year tours with U.S. Navy Submarine Forces (SUBFOR) ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) units.
The recently-implemented program enables Navy and Air Force nuclear-qualified officers to gain an expanded view of the nuclear triad, as well as each leg’s respective role in U.S. Strategic Command’s (USSTRATCOM) strategic deterrence mission. The four Air Force officers selected for the initial exchange are gaining first-hand experience with SSBNs, the most survivable leg of the nation’s strategic forces.
“It is a great honor to be selected in the first group of participants in this program,” said Air Force Capt. Patrick McAfee, who is serving a three-year assignment as a strategic targeting assistant in the strategic forces, nuclear weapons and force protection directorate at Commander, Submarine Force, U.S. Pacific Fleet (COMSUBPAC) at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii. COMSUBPAC is also designated as USSTRATCOM’s Task Force 134.
“After serving in ICBM operations and maintenance at two missile wings, I was interested in broadening my knowledge of strategic operations,” he said. “I have already benefitted from learning about the complementary roles of ICBMs and SSBNs.”
Before entering the exchange program in November, 2014, McAfee was assigned to the 341st Missile Wing at Malmstrom Air Force Base, Montana. He credits his father’s service in the U.S. Navy for his eagerness to apply for the program and learn about SSBN and Navy operations, saying “it seemed like a great opportunity to join my Air Force experience with my Navy roots.”
Air Force Capt. John Mayer said his time with a Navy unit has reinforced his appreciation for the importance of teamwork. In December, 2014, he began a two-year assignment as an assistant strategic targeting officer in the strategic forces directorate at Commander, Submarine Force, U.S. Atlantic Fleet (COMSUBLANT) in Norfolk, Virginia. COMSUBLANT is also designated as USSTRATCOM’s Task Force 144.
After leaving 20th Air Force headquarters at F.E. Warren Air Force Base, Wyoming, Mayer immediately noticed the close proximity in which SSBN crew members work.
“When you put more than one hundred men and women in a submarine underwater, in dangerous conditions with a challenging mission, good leaders can’t help but build good teams,” he said. “With everyone’s safety dependent on the competence of their shipmates, a lot of good dynamics develop.”
He went on to describe the operations of an ICBM crew, which often differ greatly from those in the SSBN community.
“An ICBM team might be composed of one missile combat crew member talking to a team chief 20 miles away and a missile maintenance operations center controller a hundred miles away; but they will likely never meet face to face,” he said.
Air Force Capt. Cody daMota left the 91st Missile Wing at Minot Air Force Base, North Dakota, to serve his three years of “sea time” as an assistant nuclear weapons surety officer in COMSUBPAC headquarters’ strategic forces, nuclear weapons and force protection directorate. He arrived at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam in May and said the program has already enabled him to see the mission through a wider lens.
“As young [company-grade officers/junior officers], we have a pretty narrow perspective on nuclear operations that is pretty much limited to what we do in our day-to-day jobs,” he said. “This program has already significantly broadened my perspective.”
He also predicted that participants - present and future - will benefit from the experience and bring new ideas back to their respective wings and submarine groups, strengthening the deterrence force.
“I believe this program will provide an increased level of knowledge and appreciation for the bigger strategic picture and how everyone fits into it,” he said. “This in turn will lead to higher job satisfaction and increased morale.”
Capt. daMota described his selection for the initial Striker Trident exchange as “a great honor,” while acknowledging the responsibility that comes with the unique opportunity.
“We are breaking new ground in this assignment and charting a course for our successors,” he said. “Our work here will set the tone for many years to come.”
Like Capt. Mayer, Air Force Capt. Jessica Tiffany is serving as an assistant strategic targeting officer in the strategic forces directorate at COMSUBLANT in Norfolk, Virginia. She started her three-year Striker Trident exchange in May, after serving with the 341st Missile Wing, Malmstrom Air Force Base, Montana.
She said that she saw a “new and unique” opportunity to serve in a joint nuclear environment and decided to apply for Striker Trident. She also noted how the program provides participants a “fresh look” at how their counterparts conduct deterrence operations and said she hopes “to have some impact on the program for future Striker Trident members, where I can help make the program better.”
“There are plenty of reasons a service does things one way or another,” she said. “Sometimes the answer is ‘because we've always done it this way’ and with the changes to the nuclear enterprise, we (the Air Force and Navy) can make improvements to better accomplish USSTRATCOM's mission.”
Capt. Tiffany’s experience was also featured in a recent Air Force Times article, which can be viewed at http://www.airforcetimes.com/story/military/careers/2015/09/06/exchange-allows-missileers-and-submariners-switch-services/71632792/.
The four participants in the initial Striker Trident exchange program shared their thoughts on the experience, lessons learned through the program, and provided advice for officers who may be interested in applying:
What has surprised you most about the experience, Navy culture or the SSBN mission?
CAPT DAMOTA: Although there are obvious, significant differences between the SSBN and ICBM missions, it has surprised me how much common ground we have as a force with regards to the challenges, stresses and victories we perceive.
CAPT MAYER: Every career field demands amazing proficiency at difficult tasks from very junior members. You get used to your job though, and forget how impressive it may be to an outsider. Having no familiarity with submarine operations, I was truly blown away by the performances I saw underway. Very young sailors, enlisted and officers alike, do unbelievably challenging things that affect the entire crew’s safety and an incredibly valuable national asset. They do it under pressure every day, and they do it very well.
CAPT MCAFEE: I have been impressed by the complexity of SSBN operations. While ICBM operations can be complex in their own right, SSBN operations are infinitely more so. At [USSTRATCOM’s] TF-134, we manage eight units that independently move through a large portion of the Pacific Ocean plus all of the associated support facilities and organizations. Just the sheer scale of the operating area and the fact that the units are mobile complicates the equation immensely. Additionally, communications, supplies, materiel condition, parts availability and humanitarian issues all significantly impact operations. From what I have seen, the Navy does an excellent job of handling the interplay between these challenges while meeting mission requirements.
CAPT TIFFANY: Although this may seem obvious, one of the biggest adjustments I've had to wrap my head around is the number of layers that go into the SSBN strategic mission because they operate in a moving environment. SSBN crews not only have to concentrate on strategic mission procedures, but also on keeping a large metal tube undetected in a vast ocean without hitting anything.
What is the most significant take away from your Striker Trident experience?
CAPT DAMOTA: My most significant take away has been my exposure to different ways of thinking and approaching problem solving. After being in any career field for a period of time, I believe that thinking becomes somewhat homogenized, so it is very healthy that individuals be exposed to diverse experiences and thought processes. The Striker Trident program is unequivocally accomplishing this.
CAPT MAYER: I will definitely take away a better perspective of how ICBMs, or any other individual mission area, plays just one role in the bigger picture. In career fields like ICBM operations, it is easy for a junior officer to forget that there is more to the Air Force than ICBMs, and more to the DoD than the Air Force.
CAPT MCAFEE: My greatest take away will be an in-depth understanding of big picture SSBN operations and issues that affect the joint force. I’ve been exposed to many complexities that the fleet deals with on a daily basis, including scheduling challenges, changes and conflicts, exercise requirements, inspection requirements, materiel problems, nuclear weapons surety and security issues. All of these subjects significantly affect how the Navy meets USSTRATCOM requirements and mirror the issues that affect the Air Force in the ICBM fields. By acquiring a working knowledge of these subjects in two of the three legs of the triad, I believe that I will be an asset in my future assignments. There are few Air Force or Navy officers that have this first-hand experience in two areas of strategic operations, and the Striker Trident program will pay dividends in the future for the nuclear enterprise as a whole.
CAPT TIFFANY: There is always something to learn. I am constantly asking questions about similarities and differences between ICBM and SSBN procedures and asking "why" a lot. The more I learn, the more questions I have. I’d like to think I’m getting a better idea of how the triad works together to accomplish nuclear deterrence. I look forward to the next few years.
What advice do you have for those interested in the Striker Trident program?
CAPT DAMOTA: I absolutely love this program, so my advice would be to go for it. When I initially applied, there was no one who had been in the Striker Trident program, so I basically applied blind because of my interest in the SSBN mission. Now, there are four USAF and two USN personnel already in the position.
CAPT MAYER: It is a great opportunity that you will not regret applying for!
CAPT MCAFEE: I personally think it is a great opportunity, but it may not be for everyone. Each officer serving in the Striker Trident program is more than willing to share our experiences with anyone who might be interested.
CAPT TIFFANY: Try to gain as much experience in different positions wherever you are stationed. I think it is important to get as much "big picture" experience as you can so you gain a better understanding of how the nuclear enterprise works as a whole, instead of just one aspect of it. This has been a great learning experience so far, so I think anyone who is interested should apply.
One of nine DoD unified combatant commands, USSTRATCOM has global strategic missions, assigned through the Unified Command Plan, which include strategic deterrence; space operations; cyberspace operations; joint electronic warfare; global strike; missile defense; intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance; combating weapons of mass destruction; and analysis and targeting.