Skip to content

Archive for

Friday’s Reading List

By Taylor Marvin

Charles R. Knight, 'American Mastodon,' 1897. Via Wikimedia.

Charles R. Knight, ‘American Mastodon,’ 1897. Via Wikimedia.

What I read this week:

Why are Latin America’s democratic leaders so hesitant to criticize the Venezuelan government’s repression of demonstrators? And are the protesters leading opposition leaders, rather than the other way around?

Newsweek has a good profile of a Honduran soldier involved in anti-drug operations (via Brian J. Phillips).

Not to mock mistaken predictions, but I think reading piece arguing that Russia would not intervene in Ukraine is an interesting exercise.

Andrew O’Hagan’s mammoth London Review of Books chronicle of ghostwriting Julian Assange’s failed autobiography is a revealing look both at the narcissistic Wikileaks founder and the nature of pathological, pathetic procrastination.

And extensive linkage from Monday at Political Violence at a Glancemostly covering events in Ukraine and Venezuela.

Ukraine and the European Union

By Taylor Marvin

Mocking Chris Hayes’ admission that he is confused by the rapidly-developing events in Ukraine, Alex Berezow writes that the West has a “smack-you-in-the-face obvious” policy choice regarding the Eastern European country. To avoid Ukraine again threatening to fall into Russia’s orbit, the European Union should offer Ukraine an achievable pathway to entry into the EU. “Feckless though it may be,” Berezow writes, “the EU offers Ukraine a safer future than its current status of dependence on Russia’s ultimately self-serving largesse.”

Daniel Larison makes the reasonable point that this option is only obvious “if you assume that the US and EU are willing to bear the costs that will come from bringing Ukraine closer to the EU, and if you assume that they are ready and willing to counter whatever actions Russia takes in response to the attempt.” This, of course, is true. The prospective Association Agreement which — after its rejection — precipitated the protests against Yanukovych’s government and current aid offers are very different from the EU entry Berezow suggests and Ukrainian politicians have positively mentioned. As Larison notes, a Ukrainian pathway to full EU membership is a long-term prospect that may never come to full fruition. Ukraine is in the midst of a violent and chaotic political upheaval, which is unlikely to be the country’s last. The country is poor and beset by corruption and weak public institutions. From the EU’s perspective, it is not clear if the long-term cost and difficulties associated with the hard work of actually incorporating Ukraine are preferable to the status quo. For many Ukrainians, Russia’s “self-serving largesse” may be more dependable than a distracted and disinterested European Union’s, at least in the shorter-term.

The prospect of further EU expansion to include weak or politically unstable states is costly, and this is a cost that commentators or EU leaders themselves can’t simply wave away. There’s no reason to think that the European Union has strong practical interest in tying its own success to Ukraine’s more tightly than it already is by virtue of geography alone, or that a path to the EU entry that both Berezow and western-leaning Ukrainians support necessarily leads to so-desired institution-building and political stability.

Building institutions and liberal political environments is a difficult task, and one Europe has already demonstrated it has only so much interest in doing. Turkey’s efforts to join the EU have famously stalled — a stall the Erdogan government’s highly-public turn towards authoritarianism suggests could last decades. Obviously, there are major differences between Turkey and Ukraine. The Cyprus issue is a major barrier. Turkey’s 77 million strong population would make it the second largest country in the EU, and soon to the be largest; this size makes the Anatolian country’s bid far more politically, culturally, and economically consequential than smaller countries’. Europe’s engagement with Turkey has also been bedeviled by — not unreasonable — accusations of bias against the Muslim country.

But Turkey is both far wealthier and arguably more politically stable than Ukraine. If Ukraine is offered a rapid — read: believable — pathway to EU entry, then the message sent is that the only reason Turkey’s bid has stalled is because it isn’t lucky enough to enjoy the strategic attentions of a major European rival. Aside from all the practical difficulties of Ukrainian membership, and assuming that Ukrainians even see a path to EU entry as a credible offer, is that really a message the EU wants to send?

What Should the US Do About Venezuela?

By Taylor Marvin

Image by María Alejandra Mora, via Wikimedia.

Image by María Alejandra Mora, via Wikimedia.

In Venezuela demonstrations against the government of Hugo Chávez’s successor Nicolás Maduro continue, and have left over a dozen dead. The demonstrators, who have mobilized under the Twitter hashtag #LaSalida, a reference to many’s demand for Maduro’s “exit,” have taken to the streets to voice their frustration with Venezuela’s economic malaise, shortages of basic goods, and stunning crime rate. Government supporters, who have mobilized in their own counter-demonstrations, accusers the student-led protesters of pursuing a coup against the — in his supporters’ view — democratically-elected Maduro. The government’s response has been harsh, with attempts to silence opposition social media and pro-government thugs on motorcycles firing into the crowds. Like many embattled regimes before it, the Maduro government appears determined to shred whatever legitimacy it once had outside of its die-hard supporters through pointless violence — but it is unclear if the unrest seriously threatens the government’s survival.

While President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry have denounced the government’s tactics, others want the United States to take a more forceful stance. In a Monday speech Republican Senator Marco Rubio highlighted the Maduro government’s brutal repression of the demonstrations, terming the Obama administration’s reaction “shameful” and calling for sanctions against those responsible for the brutality. “They look for America to be on their side,” Rubio said of Venezuelans and Cubans. “We should be clear about these things.”

Another columnist referenced the Obama administration’s response to the violence as another reason why the the President can’t “command the respect of other nations.”

It’s right to be angry about the Venezuelan government’s complete disregard for its citizens. But hastily conceived actions motivated only by outrage, however morally justified, are not good policy.

First, it is important to understand that recognizing this nuance is neither an endorsement of the Maduro government nor a repudiation of socialism, as so many partisan international observers seem to believe. As Michael Moynihan warns, leftists’ sympathy for self-identified socialist governments and distrust of US “imperialism” is no excuse for voicing support for a government busy shooting down unarmed students in the street. The Maduro government is a chaotic wreck that has continued Chávez’s project of dismanteling Venezuela’s independent public institutions and market economy in favor of patronage channels the leader can control and a mild personality cult. Maduro’s response to student demonstrations has been to mobilize militias to attack demonstrators, brandish swords, shut down internet communications and expel foreign journalists — whose reporting he labeled “war propaganda” — and denounce his political opponents as fascists.

But this brutality does not erase the passions mobilizing both Maduro’s supporters and opponents. In a pro-chavista piece published in the Nation, George Ciccariello-Maher makes the point that “these protests have far more to do with returning economic and political elites to power than with their downfall.” This is somewhat true — the protests do reflect middle class concerns over those of the poor who were politically marginalized under the oligarchic two-party system that predated Chávez — but conveniently ignores protesters’ real concerns that populists like Maduro tear down the ladder of democratic institutions, not to mention economic stability, behind them. In a more measured piece for the Brazilian magazine Carta Capital, left-wing politician Jean Wyllys notes the contradictions of Venezuela’s political conflict, which is often lost on its observers. “Denying the social advances won by Venezuela’s poorest people during the government of Hugo Chávez is as wrong as denying the problems that the country currently faces,” Wyllys writes. “Saying that chavismo — which won repeated elections and referendums with absolute transparency and with international observers — is a ‘dictatorship’ is as wrong as not repudiating the regime’s authoritarianism.” [My translation.]

While Maduro’s victory in the 2013 election are difficult to call completely “fair” in the context of degraded democratic institutions, observers should not forget that though Maduro has apparently failed to forge the same charismatic appeal as his predecessor chavismo’s welfare programs and perceived representation of the poor has real democratic appeal.

All this isn’t to say that the US doesn’t have an interest in the conflict’s outcome. The economic reforms and rule of law the opposition claims to favor would be a real gain for both Venezuela and the entire region, which includes the United States. But that doesn’t change the fact that the US should not interfere in the conflict, either through harsher rhetoric or sanctions.

Like Chávez before him, Maduro appears committed to dismantling the remaining independent institutions essential to sustainable economic growth in favor of personalized patronage and political authoritarianism. But this authoritarian populism does not erase the problems associated with popular movements that throw out elected governments — if #LaSalida somehow does succeed in forcing Maduro out of power, it sets a dangerous precedent the opposition could very well come to regret. It is not clear that the US has much interest in this happening.

But more importantly, this type of domestic political conflict simply isn’t the US government’s business, and even if it was the US has very little practical leverage anyway. Like many, many of his counterparts around the world and Chávez before him, Maduro’s preferred method of delegitimizing his domestic opposition is labeling them tools of an interfering United States and not representatives of the Venezuelan people Maduro claims to speak for. Given that there is some truth to the government’s narrative that opposition represents the middle class over the poor, and Venezuela’s traditional elites over the beneficiaries of chavismo, overt US encouragement of the opposition is the best thing that could happen to Maduro.

Whatever the Obama administration does, or probably does not, choose to do, Venezuelan politics will remain contentious to years to come. No matter what happens in the coming weeks, the government will remain illegitimate in the eyes of a substantial fraction of the population. Venezuela will likely remain besieged by a brutally high crime rate, extreme political polarization, a failing economy entirely tied to the price of oil, and weakened public institutions in an era when those of many other South American countries have strengthened. The introduction of state violence into this mix does not bode well.

Without any real way to encourage nonviolence and accountability, harsher words and sanctions on Maduro government officials would simply express moral disapproval and further the government’s narrative of a malevolent United States that keeps Venezuelans poor.

Update: Daniel Larison makes a similar point.

Friday’s Reading List

By Taylor Marvin

Raja Ravi Varma, "Shakuntala looking back to glimpse Dushyanta," 1870. Via Wikipedia.

Raja Ravi Varma, “Shakuntala looking back to glimpse Dushyanta,” 1870. Via Wikipedia.

What I read this week:

On Venezuela: Protests swell as places to rally disappear, inter-opposition splits over tactics, some background on post-Chávez Venezuelan politics, and another backgrounder on #lasalida: “The student protests as currently formulated have little chance of developing a strong cross-class alliance.”

Taking Brazil seriously.

Among the conspiracy theorists in Kiev.

We don’t say “Slav” democracy is troubled in Ukraine, so why talk about “Arab” failures? The use of the Slavic people as a unit of international geography has declined in the last few decades, while the “Arab world” has not. I’d guess the overt non-ethnic self-definition advanced by the USSR contributed to this.

Peter Munson has another strong piece on the question of intervention in Syria.

From Wednesday, linkage covering political violence at PVG.

Kaki King – Neanderthal.

Foreign News As Entertainment

By Taylor Marvin

Photo by Mstyslav Chernov, via Wikimedia.

Photo by Mstyslav Chernov, via Wikimedia.

Under the provocative title “The Day We Pretended to Care About Ukraine,” Sarah Kendzior writes that much of American mass media coverage of the ongoing political conflict in the Eastern European country is “disaster porn,” that favors page views over responsible, informative reporting. Most readers do not know how the conflict is affecting Ukrainians because “few apocalypsticle authors pose the question, because the only relevant question is what it means for them: traffic,” Kendzior writes, mourning that coverages ‘looks, but does not listen’ to the protesters themselves. Separated from the pain and loss of violence and any impetus to understand it, “we seem to get off on destruction as a visual experience, removed from participation and consequence.”

It is certainly true that much of the coverage of the violence in Ukraine has been lacking. But is it really so surprising that so much coverage is, as Kendzior terms it, disaster porn? After all, another inconsiderate but appropriate description for “fire and blood” is dramatic, as so many of the photos coming out of Kiev are. As Emily L. Hauser notes:

The vast majority of Americans do not know a single thing about Ukraine, or indeed consume international news in any depth at all. For them, international reporting is an entertainment product, and while it is unpleasant to admit, conflict — particularly when dramatically photographed, framing which intersects with the valuation of whose suffering matters — is entertaining to those safely separated from it.

It is unsurprising that news coverage, particularly in a world where quick publishing is more lucrative than accuracy and depth, and where foreign bureaus are closing, pander to this audience. After all, even those who do closely watch foreign affairs similarly, for all practical purposes, view it as an entertainment good. It is often noted that highly-trafficked bloggers like the Washington Post’s Max Fisher — who caustically commented on Kendzior’s piece — occasionally get things wrong (Kendzior herself recently highlighted a piece that chided a Fisher post on Kazakhstan). But Fisher is a generalist, and I imagine that the bulk of his audience, spending ten minutes a day reading about foreign affairs, appreciate a similarly general, breezy style — which is why Fisher has an audience, and academic bloggers with the tight focus, on-the-ground experience, and language skills to really understand a specific place or time generally do not. Readers may like to pretend that their interest in foreign news is in pursuit of learning or global awareness — I certainly do! — but for most it’s entertainment. Fisher produces entertainment, which is why he has a large audience and is paid by the Post, and most esoteric bloggers are not.

This isn’t to single out Fisher or Buzzfeed, or say that entertainment is not informative. Many international affairs bloggers certainly are, and a skillful writer can teach a wide audience something while not boring them. But the simple truth is that the economics of expensive to produce 5,000 word pieces on Ukrainian history and political dynamics only a few will read are not promising.

Anyway, there’s a reason porn is one of the most prolific forms of media in existence.

Talks, and the Killing That Won’t Stop

Photo by Fabio Rodrigues Pozzebom / ABr, via Wikimedia.

Photo by Fabio Rodrigues Pozzebom / ABr, via Wikimedia.

By Taylor Marvin

The killing in Syria appears to be intensifying. Late last year Bashar al-Assad’s military forces stepped up an arial bombing campaign that included an intense assault on the rebel-held city of Aleppo. Following regime forces’ gains in the city, in early February rebels announced a new offensive, which was in turn was followed by further regime bombardment. The Syrian military’s preferred aircraft weapons appear to be barrel bombs, unguided improvised explosives that indiscriminately kill civilians and were recently termed ‘barbarous’ by US Secretary of State John Kerry. The death toll from the regime’s offensive has been severe. In recent remarks, UN Ambassador Samantha Power noted that despite the ongoing UN-backed peace talks in Switzerland, the current rate of killing is unprecedented. “Reportedly, nearly 5000 people have been killed just since the Geneva II talks began,” Power stated. “That is the most concentrated period of killing in the entire duration of the conflict – that’s just in the last three weeks – so it is not enough for us to stand here and say there has been no progress, which there hasn’t, we must recognize and state very forcefully that the situation has gotten worst, and is getting worst.”

In a recent post at Political Violence at a GlanceAllison Beth Hodgkins makes the interesting argument that these two events — the deadlocked Geneva II conference and the Assad regime’s destructive bombing campaign — may not be a coincidence. By indiscriminately bombing Syrian cities at the same time it is obstinately ready to negotiate, the Assad regime is sending a clear message to rebels that foreign military intervention is not forthcoming while also emphasizing that it, not the disunited insurgency, remains the sovereign voice of Syria.

It is entirely possible that Assad’s bombing campaign is intended to send a message to both the rebels and the international community. But at the very least it demonstrates that Assad does not see the negotiations as any constraint on its military strategy. Assad seeks to demonstrate to both uncommitted Syrians and the outside world that his forces cannot be militarily defeated, that the rebellion will not be able to dislodge the regime from its western heartland, and that it is only a matter of time before he takes back the entire country. By carrying out an indiscriminately destructive, resolve-demonstrating military strategy the regime emphasizes that the eventual outcome of the conflict will be on its, not the opposition’s, terms, and that a prospective settlement that does not included Bashar al-Assad’s continued presence at the head of Syria’s government is a non-starter — “please tell those who dream of wasting our time here in such a discussion to stop it,” in the words of Syria’s deputy foreign minister.

Assad can afford this brutality because he knows that western countries no longer have any leverage over him. The very public opposition to the Obama, Cameron, and Hollande governments’ favored airstrikes proposed in the wake of the 2013 chemical weapons attacks revealed just how unpopular and politically painful even a limited military intervention in Syria would be. The Assad regime obviously crossed the red line prohibiting chemical weapons use, and the US and France ultimately settled for a toothless, Russian-brokered deal that appears unlikely to actually result in the destruction of most of the regime’s chemical weapons, and is anyway irrelevant to the wider war. While limited strikes were unlikely to have meaningfully alter the course of the Syrian war — and Obama’s red line was always an unwise policy, given the administration’s unwillingness to bind itself to serious intervention in the conflict should the red line be violated — if the Assad regime’s chemical weapons use did not bring serious consequences, bombarding cities and starving civilians will not either. Assad knows this, and the international community does as well.

Friday’s Reading List

By Taylor Marvin

Anne-Louis Girodet de Roussy-Trioson, 'Portrait of J. B. Belley, Deputy for Saint-Domingue,' 1797. Via Wikimedia.

Anne-Louis Girodet de Roussy-Trioson, ‘Portrait of J. B. Belley, Deputy for Saint-Domingue,’ 1797. Via Wikimedia.

What I read this week:

Challenging the narrative of Latin America’s left vs. right framework, which Roberta S. Jacobson comments “attempts to sort the region’s governments by that dated rubric lead one down a confused path to contorted conclusions.” Greg Weeks agrees, noting that these labels “will persist because they offer very easy ways to show whether you approve or not of a given person/country and/or want to project a certain image of them.”

Why are the Obama administration’s political-appointee ambassadors so unqualified? (Via Graham Jenkins and Andrew Exum.)

Why did Vladimir Putin choose sub-tropical beach resort Sochi as the site of Russia’s first Winter Olympics?

What’s a responsible, progressive position on an Israeli settlements boycott? Matt Duss urges economic pressure on settlements as a road to the least-bad option of a two-state solution.

More linkage at Political Violence @ a Glance.

The Frames – Santa Maria.

A Thought Experiment on the Nuclear Triad

US Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class James Kimber, via Wikimedia.

US Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class James Kimber, via Wikimedia.

By Taylor Marvin

The strategic nuclear forces of the United States and Russia are divided between what is termed a triad of nuclear-armed aircraft, ballistic missile submarines, and intercontinental ballistic missiles. As I noted earlier this week, many argue that the triad system is an expensive and redundant relic, and that one or more of its legs could be eliminated with no risk to the credibility of America’s nuclear deterrence.

The Air Force’s intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) are most often singled out as the least essential leg of the triad, for numerous reasons. The fixed locations of ICBM silos tempt an enemy to strike first in an attempt to destroy them on the ground, a destabilizing incentive towards a nuclear first strike; the threat of missiles being destroyed before they can be fired pressures decision-makers to “use them or lose them” and fire on just the warning of an imminent attack, increasing the risk of accidental war; and ICBMs encourage arms races, because the number of nuclear warheads necessary to destroy an opponent’s missiles in their hardened silos is far higher than needed to end civilization. Indeed, the entire concept of the nuclear triad is an after the fact justification of a three-branched strategic nuclear force that owes more to interservice rivalry than any sound strategic concept.

One of the most common arguments against eliminating ICBMs — or any one element of the triad — is the need to hedge against technological advancements that suddenly defang one means of delivering nuclear weapons. It is possible, triad proponents argue, that a revolution in undersea detection could make it much easier to find and destroy the Navy’s ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs). These fears are overstated. As Benjamin H. Friedman, Christopher A. Preble and Matt Fay note in their paper “The End of Overkill? Reassessing US Nuclear Weapons Policy,” despite similar warnings during the Cold War after the dissolution of the USSR the US government learned that it had over, not underestimated the Soviets’ ability to detect US submarines. This will likely hold true in the future as ballistic missile submarines — which are termed “boomers” in US service — continue to grow quieter. “Remember that hawks have been warning about future US SSBNs’ vulnerability to enemy forces since the 1960s, and it has not yet arrived,” Friedman, Preble, and Fay write. “Moreover, the effort needed to achieve such technological progress is unlikely to be instant or unknown to US intelligence.”

In any case, a sudden technological advance that makes ballistic missile submarines much less survivable is no more likely than an extremely unlikely revolution that makes iron-clad ballistic missile defense possible and negates the entire concept of ballistic missiles.

But even if boomers suddenly became much more detectable, would this fatally threaten the deterrence value of a submarine and aircraft nuclear dyad? Imagine a world where, for what ever reason, submarines do not exist (say humans of this alternative reality are literally paralyzed with innate fear of the ocean’s deep).* In this world the naval leg of the nuclear triad are “ballistic missile cruisers” armed with 24 Trident II nuclear missiles, each carrying up to a dozen independent nuclear warheads. Besides being launched from the ocean’s surface rather than underneath it, these missiles are identical to those carried by US and UK SSBNs in our world. Perhaps these cruisers are also nuclear powered, again like SSBNs (the USN has operated CGNs in the past). Strategic deterrent patrols consist of a “cruiser strike group” composed of a ballistic missile cruiser, an air-defense cruiser, and two destroyers. As ballistic missile cruisers would be more affordable than a SSBN, the US Navy fields, say, twenty of them, with two thirds at sea at any given time.

A US nuclear-powered cruiser. Via Wikimedia.

A US nuclear-powered cruiser. Via Wikimedia.

Needless to say, these surface ships would be far more vulnerable than ballistic missile submarines, and in this world America’s nuclear deterrent is less robust. Ships can be tracked from the air or space, and destroyed with anti-ship missiles or other military weapons. The vulnerability of surface ships would create the same “use it or lose it” incentive towards a destabilizing launch on warning stance as land-based ICBMs. These cruisers would also be unable to sneak close to enemy shores to reduce missile flight times, one of the key advantages — or disadvantages, from a global stability perspective — of ballistic missile submarines. Cruisers would also share one of the same trip-wire problem of SSBNs, namely that a counterforce attack on submarines at sea does not carry the same weight (and hands-tying motivation for nuclear response) as one targeting ICBMs based on US territory.**

But would a fleet of ballistic missile cruisers alone constitute a credible deterrence? While far from ideal, I think that it would be. After all, destroying this “surface” leg of a triad would require killing at least a dozen heavily defended ships scattered across the globe, all before the US realized that a coordinated attack on its nuclear forces was underway and responded in kind. After all, the difficulty of pulling this off would be roughly comparable to sinking every US supercarrier more or less simultaneously, something that no one is worried about today. Even for a future adversary armed with intercontinental-range anti-ship ballistic missiles, this would be a difficult task. Certainly one not worth betting millions of lives on.

The point is that even after a sudden revolution in undersea detection that makes US boomers much more vulnerable they would still be more survivable than the ballistic missile cruisers of this alternative world. There will always be an undersea arms race between offense and defense. But this isn’t any reason to fear that submarines will suddenly become more vulnerable, and it certainly isn’t an argument against drawing down the Air Force’s ICBMs.

*Though perhaps in a world without submarines German unrestricted submarine warfare never prompts US entry into World War I, which Germany then wins, an isolated United States is not the first to develop nuclear weapons, and our ballistic missile cruisers belong to the imperial Hochseeflotte…

**This citation specifically references a comment by Tom Nichols; the format of the blog does not allow me to permalink to it directly.

Yes, America Should Eliminate Land-Based ICBMs

By Taylor Marvin

Minuteman III test launch, 2013. USAF photo by Lt. Col. Andy Wulfestieg.

Minuteman III test launch, 2013. USAF photo by Lt. Col. Andy Wulfestieg.

Once again, US Air Force nuclear missile officers are embroiled in scandal. In mid January news — emerging after an investigation into illegal drug use — broke of mid-level launch officers in the 341st Missile Wing cheating, or failing to report cheating, on monthly proficiency exams. These exams test officers’ ability to operate the service’s Minuteman III nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), which are a major component of the United States’ nuclear deterrent. As of January 30th more than half of the nuclear missile crew members at Malmstrom Air Force Base and 20 percent of the Air Force’s nuclear weapons corps were implicated in the scandal though, importantly, the cheating appears driven by a desire to achieve perfect scores amidst a climate of workplace “stress and fear” and not by an actual inability to operate the launch systems. The cheating scandal came in the wake of the October sacking of top “missileer” Maj. Gen. Michael J. Carey, commander the 20th Air Force, after an official trip to Moscow that saw Carey drunkly incoherent in public, flirting with Russian women, and publicly boasting about how he was “saving the world.” Carey also reportedly complained that members of the 20th Air Force, which is responsible for USAF ICBMs, “have the worst morale of any airmen in the Air Force.”

In late January Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel ordered a review of the nuclear force, stressing investigation into “those issues that affect the morale, professionalism, performance, and leadership of the people who make up that force.” Following the scandal Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James claimed that nuclear missile operations suffer from “systemic problems within the force.” Last year embarrassing reports of failed safety inspections in multiple Missile Wings surfaced, attracting wide media attention.

Those familiar with the Air Force nuclear missile corps allege that it suffers from endemic morale and professionalism problems. While the USAF officer corps has always been famous for an unofficial hierarchy that put first bomber and later fighter pilots at the head of the pack, since the end of the Cold War nuclear launch officers have been near the bottom. With the dissolution of the USSR the threat of nuclear war grew much more distant, and urgency and perceived importance of the USAF nuclear mission diminished. On top of the inherent boredom and hardship of serving on the Air Force’s remote ICBM bases, the less-relevant nuclear missile corps became a dead-end duty for unlucky officers, with many opportunities to fail and few to be rewarded for success.

After this scandal the Air Force will reform its nuclear missile operations, and officers involved will be punished. However, it is unlikely that these reforms will lead to any real change, because this isn’t the first time the standards of the Air Force’s nuclear forces have been called into question. In 2007 an Air Force B-52 bomber flying between North Dakota and Louisiana was accidentally loaded with six live nuclear cruise missiles, with the weapons unaccounted for and unprotected for 36 hours. A later investigation revealed serious problems with the service’s handling of nuclear weapons, with then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates identifying “structural, procedural, and cultural problems” within the force. In 2008 Secretary of the Air Force Michael Wynne and Chief of Staff of the Air Force General T. Michael Moseley were both asked to resign, and a new Air Force nuclear command was later created. However, the creation of the Air Force Global Strike Command in the wake of the 2007 incident was evidently not enough to ensure the level of professionalism and safety operating nuclear weapons requires.

Secretary Hagel has ordered exploring ways to improve morale and incentivize success within the nuclear forces. Reforms will certainly help, but it is unlikely that this current scandal will permanently change the way the USAF nuclear weapons corps operates because reprisals and reforms do not address the core problem facing the service’s nuclear forces. In the post-Cold War era officers will still see the nuclear weapons corps as an unattractive posting ignored by the wider service and with little opportunity to distinguish themselves outside of exams, breeding complacency and carelessness. Of course, there will always be unpopular duties within the military. But the repeated, systematic failures of the USAF’s approach to nuclear weapons suggests that this is a tough problem, and one that will defy easy solutions.

In fact, these scandals are another good reason to eliminate the Air Force’s ICBM force entirely. ICBMs compose one leg of the US nuclear triad; nuclear bombs and cruise missiles dropped from aircraft and submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) the others. The advantage of SLBMs is that they are the ultimate in second-strike capability — because nuclear ballistic missile submarines (often referred to in US service as “boomers”) are incredibly difficult to detect and destroy, states that field SLBMs (or submarine-launched nuclear-tipped cruise missiles) are guaranteed to be able to respond in kind to, and thus deter, a nuclear attack. During the Cold War it was hoped that the triad, with nuclear missiles split between the Navy’s missile submarines and the Air Force’s hardened ICBM bunkers, would present a more effective deterrent than a two or one-legged nuclear force.

But the entire concept of the nuclear triad owes just as much to interservice rivalries as anything else — the Navy pursued SLBMs in part to ensure they, and not just the Air Force, had a hand in the United States nuclear forces — and after the end of the Cold War many have argued that fielding a full nuclear triad is no longer necessary. Maintaing a massively-redundant nuclear deterrence force is no longer seen as necessary to ensure peace as it once was, and distributing a shrinking number of nuclear warheads across the same three delivery components is an expensive anachronism.

Nuclear weapons launched from aircraft are more flexible than ballistic missiles, and land-based ICBMs will never be nearly as invulnerable as missiles carried on the Navy’s boomers. The counterforce mission Air Force ICBMs were assigned in the late Cold War — launching waves of nuclear warheads at Soviet missile bases in the hopes of destroying their weapons on the ground — is less relevant today, if it ever was at all. If one leg of the triad is to be done away with, the Air Force’s ICBMs are the logical choice.

By all accounts the Navy ballistic missile submarine force does not have the same systematic issues as the Air Force’s nuclear weapons corps. This is likely partially due to institutional factors, but also the nature of operating a nuclear missile submarine — with more to do, boomer crews are apparently more motivated and perceived as more prestigious that the USAF nuclear corps. Institutions can be changed, and institutional rot within the 20th Air Force is not in and of itself a reason to draw down US ICBMs. But when there is already a strong argument for ending the United States’ outdated commitment to an expensive and redundant nuclear triad, well, a string of scandals among those responsible for the planet’s most destructive weaponry doesn’t exactly help.

Note: I should clarify that questions about the “relevance” of the counterforce mission relate to uncertainty about the plausibility of limited or “winnable” nuclear war, and is debatable.

Update: As of February 4th, the Navy is reportedly suffering its own cheating scandal involving its school for nuclear reactor operations. As Sydney J. Freedburg Jr. and Colin Clark report:

Regardless of how much the two service’s experiences may differ, the fact remains that this provides more evidence of what appear to be serious problems in some elements of America’s nuclear forces. While the Air Force’s failings involved those who would fire nuclear weapons and the Navy involves those who deal with reactors, they both involve personnel with intimate knowledge of and access to nuclear materials.

While this scandal appears very distinct from the USAF’s, this news is something to keep an eye on.