By Taylor Marvin
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.