An equally-interesting (but less publicized) episode involved Dr. Gates’s handling of nuclear issues in the U.S. Air Force. Gates had been on the job only a few months when a USAF B-52 accidentally ferried nuclear-tipped cruise missiles from Minot AFB, North Dakota, to Barksdale AFB near Shreveport, Louisiana in late August, 2007. The nuclear warheads were supposed to be removed before the missiles were transferred to the Louisiana base for retirement and disposal. Making the debacle even worse, the mistake wasn’t detected until after the B-52 ferry aircraft landed at Barksdale. It was the most serious nuclear security incident in decades, mandating the immediate notification of both the SecDef and President Bush.
A subsequent investigation revealed serious problems in the Air Force nuclear enterprise, which ultimately led to the firing of the Air Force Chief of Staff (General Mike Moseley) and Michael Wynne, the Secretary of the Air Force. It was the first time in U.S. history that the senior military and civilian leaders of a service were dismissed at the same time. In his new book, Gates said the dismissals were prompted (in part) because Air Force leaders didn’t seen to understand the gravity of the situation.
Since then, the Air Force has spent billions to fix its nuclear units. Training standards have been tightened, inspections are conducted on a more frequent basis, and a new organization (Global Strike Command) was organized to oversee strategic bomber and missile units. But the problems have persisted; there have been failed inspections, security lapses and reports of personnel misconduct, along with occasional dismissals of senior personnel. Yet, the USAF’s nuclear enterprise remains a troubled organization.
Consider the latest scandal, which erupted last week at Malmstrom AFB, Montana. Thirty-four missile launch officers were removed from their posts last week, after it was discovered that they cheated on a routine proficiency exam, required to maintain their crew certification. More from the AP, which has been looking into problems involving the ICBM force for several months:
[Air Force Secretary Deborah] James said she will travel to each of the Air Force’s three nuclear missile bases next week to learn more about conditions within the missile launch force and the more senior officers who manage them. She suggested that the cheating was confined to this single case involving 34 officers, although numerous missile officers have told the AP confidentially that some feel compelled to cut corners on their monthly proficiency tests because of intense pressure to score at the highest levels to advance in the force.
“I want all of you to know that, based on everything I know today, I have great confidence in the security and the effectiveness of our ICBM force,” James said. “And, very importantly, I want you to know that this was a failure of some of our airmen. It was not a failure of the nuclear mission.”
James, who has been in the job only four weeks, said the entire ICBM launch officer force of about 600 will have been retested by the end of the day Thursday.
[Air Force Chief of Staff General Mark] Welsh said he knew of no bigger ICBM cheating scandal or launch officer decertification in the history of the missile force, which began operating in 1959. Last spring the Air Force decertified 17 launch officers at Minot Air Force Base, N.D., for a combination of poor performance and bad attitudes; at the time the Air Force said it was the largest-ever one-time sidelining of launch officers. It later said 19 had been decertified; they were held off the job for two months of retraining.
There are also widespread reports of poor morale within the ranks of missileers, who sit 24-hour nuclear alerts one or two days a week, at bases in North Dakota, Montana and Wyoming. Two-person missile crews (which typically consist of a Captain and a Lieutenant) are entrusted with a “flight” of 10-nuclear tipped Minuteman III ICBMs and must be prepared to launch those weapons, if directed by the national command authority. When not on alert, missile officers are usually performing “additional duties” at their base, completing required training, or enjoying time off from the job.
Reportedly, some missileers are upset because they find their assignments “boring” and believe the Air Force–and the nation–have little regard for their work. In the spirit of disclosure, your humble correspondent must report that he never served as a launch officer, though many of my friends did. Some of the complaints being voiced today are no different than twenty-five or thirty years ago.
Yes, it’s no fun to show up at Malmstrom on a sub-zero January morning and sit through mind-numbing briefings to prepare you for alert. Then, you and your deputy drive in an ancient crew vehicle up to 90 miles from base to reach the Launch Control Facility, hoping you don’t slide off a frozen road or get stranded in a snow storm. Upon arrival at the LCF, you assume duties from the departing crew and spend the next 24 hours monitoring your missiles; participating in exercises, processing communications traffic, working on your off-duty education and sleeping, occasionally interspersed by a few moments of sheer terror, when it looks like armageddon might actually be at hand.
During an exceptionally realistic drill at Whiteman AFB, Missouri (which missile installation back in the 80s), a missile crew commander (MCC) became convinced that an exercise was the “real deal” and nuclear annihilation was only moments away. Breaking every rule in the book, he called the base command post and directed them to patch him through to his wife, at home. “Head for the hills, honey, it’s World War III,” he shouted before hanging up and returning to his pre-launch checklist. As you might imagine, the frightened spouse called a few of her neighbors and in short order, a small convoy of wives and children were heading for the Ozarks, trying to escape before in-bound Russian ICBMs vaporized Whiteman and the surrounding area. Needless to say, the “excited” crew commander pulled his last alert that evening.
As for mission relevance, it’s true that the Cold War ended more than 20 years ago. But the idea that land-based ICBMs are irrelevant is downright preposterous. If anything, the importance of our nuclear triad (or more correctly, what’s left of it) will become even more important in the years to come. Rogue states like Iran and North Korea will have missiles capable of striking the CONUS by the end of this decade–at the latest–and both China and Russia are modernizing their strategic arsenals. To counter those threats, the United States needs a flexible, robust nuclear deterrent, including the Minuteman III force.
Are there better (read: more promotable) jobs for Air Force officers? Probably. Are there worse assignments than being a missileer? Definitely. It’s a lesson that dates back to Day One of OTS, ROTC, or the Academy, when you learn that the satisfaction derived from any assignment is directly proportional to the effort you put into it. If missileers are upset because they belong to an Air Force run largely by fighter pilots, get in line. Talk to maintenance officers, logisticians, intel types, security forces, members of the medical corps and you’ll hear the same thing. It comes with the territory.
And it doesn’t excuse cheating on a qualification exam, no matter how long that practice has existed (by some accounts, cheating on the test has been going on in some missile units for decades). By virtue of their duties, missileers are given enormous responsibilities. At any given moment, an MCC and his deputy are in charge of more firepower than any general or admiral in history, and they must be willing (with proper notification and verification) to unleash that destructive power, with the knowledge that millions of people will die in the process. It’s not a job for the timid or the faint-of-heart, and conversely, it’s not an assignment for a hothead, either.
For decades, missileers stood their watch and there seemed to be few problems, at least from the outside. So what has happened to the Air Force nuclear enterprise and the ICBM wings in particular? As we’ve observed in previous posts, the service allowed its nuclear forces to atrophy after the Cold War ended. Missileers were merged into an expanded career field (with space operations officers) and there was a perception that folks with a “pocket rocket” played second fiddle to those who grew up on the “space” side of the house. And, with the elimination of the Peacekeeper ICBM and Ground-Launched Cruise Missiles (GLCMs) in Europe, there were fewer opportunities for missile officers, and many exited the career field at the first opportunity.
It’s also worth noting that the “organizational rot” (as some have described it) extended well beyond the launch control center. Nuclear load crews, weapons technicians and security specialists that were once among the elite of the Air Force became viewed as overly-specialized for a service pre-occupied with conventional conflicts. During the Iraq War, it wasn’t uncommon to find a weapons tech from Minot or F.E. Warren deployed as an interrogator or prison guard. Officer and senior NCOs who had learned nuclear operations under the exacting standards of Strategic Air Command had long since retired and the fighter mafia running the Air Force made sure that SAC joined them in the boneyard. The decline of training and professional standards that began in the early 1990s became a head-long plunge over the next decade, setting the stage for the Minot debacle and the incidents that followed.
How can the Air Force get its nuclear enterprise back on track? For starters, how about simplifying (and unifying) the chain of command. Under the current organizational structure, U.S. Strategic Command would assume operational control of the nation’s nuclear forces in a crisis or actual contingency. The job of training and equipping the Air Force element of those forces rests with Global Strike Command and subordinate units.
It’s a far cry from the day when SAC organized, trained and equipped those forces and if necessary, would take them into nuclear combat. There is no reason that USSTRATCOM–with the right leadership–cannot play the same, full-time “owner/operator” role once performed by SAC. Yes, Air Force leadership will howl (because command of STRATCOM rotates with the Navy), but given recent troubles in its nuclear units, can anyone demonstrate that GSC is actually fixing problems and not just another layer of blue-suited bureaucracy?
On the subject of leadership, it’s time for a radical step in that area as well. Bring General Kevin Chilton out of retirement and put him back in charge of the nation’s nuclear forces (again), or make him the next Air Force Chief of Staff. Before leaving active duty in 2011, General Chilton served as Commander of US Strategic Command, and he understands nuclear issues as well as anyone in the Pentagon, past or present. More importantly, Chilton is a realist regardng nuclear forces; in a speech to the Air Force Association in 2008, he expressed doubt about the elimination of nuclear forces, a position supported by President Obama and other political leaders. Chilton also supports modernization of America’s nuclear arsenal, a move that is long, long overdue. If fixing the nuclear enterprise is the most important task facing the Air Force (and it is), there is no man better for the job than General Chilton.
We also need a commander-in-chief who understands that nuclear weapons remain a necessary evil in today’s world. It’s a given that President Obama would never support that position, along with the rest of the Democratic Party. Unfortunately, a few member of the GOP have gone wobbly on that issue as well. In the rush to cut defense spending, it’s difficult to muster support for increased spending on nation’s nuclear arsenal, given the size and scope of the required investment. It’s much more convenient to let the enterprise hobble along and hope that the Air Force (which controls most of our nuclear stockpile) can get its act together.
But problems like the cheating scandal at Malmstrom–on top of previous failures–suggest that a band-aid fix won’t work. The Air Force needs new leadership for its nuclear forces, a streamlined chain-of-command, improved training and full accountability for those who work in the nuclear enterprise. Despite the problems that have surfaced in recent years, relatively few senior officers have been fired, while dozens of lower-ranking personnel have seen their careers ended. That’s one more thing that needs to change in restoring confidence in the service’s nuclear units.
ADDENDUM: And here’s another proposal for fixing some of the troubles facing the Air Force nuclear enterprise. From what we’ve heard, much of the grumbling (and disciplinary issues) among launch crews involves junior officers serving their first operational tour. It’s a given that many of these contrarians will leave the service at the first opportunity, creating more turmoil and experience issues in the crew force.
However, many of these problems could be solved by increasing commissioning opportunities for currently-serving NCOs through Officer Training School, with a follow-on assignment as a launch officer. Most have years already invested in the service; they’ve worked hard to complete their degree while establishing themselves as exceptional performers, and they’d welcome the opportunity to earn their commission and serve as an officer, even if it means tours in places like Wyoming and North Dakota. In recent years, Air Force OTS has graduated less than 400 new officers a year, and at least half of those slots are reserved for individuals with no prior military service. Once upon a time, the missile crew force had a large number of former NCOs who earned their gold bars through OTS and pulled alert without complaining–and without cheating on their cert exams.
It’s time to rebuild the missileer pipeline through OTS. If nothing else, missile squadron and wing commanders could sleep a bit easier at night, knowing that more of their alert crews are responsible adults who are not trying to arrange a drug deal in their spare time, or waiting for another launch officer to “text” them the answers for this month’s cert test.