November 20, 2013

U.S. nuke troubles run deep; key officers ‘burned out’

The Associated Press

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This April 15, 1997 file photo shows an Air Force missile crew commander standing at the door of his launch capsule 100-feet under ground where he and his partner are responsible for 10 nuclear-armed ICBM’s, in north-central Colorado. Trouble inside the Air Forceís nuclear missile force runs deeper and wider than officials have let on. An unpublished study for the Air Force obtained by The Associated Press cites ìburnoutî among launch officers with their finger on the trigger of 450 weapons of mass destruction. And this: evidence of broader behavioral issues across the intercontinental ballistic missile force, including sexual assault and domestic violence.

AP Photo/Eric Draper

In its Cold War heyday, an ICBM force twice as big as today's was designed to deter the nuclear Armageddon that at times seemed all-too-possible amid a standoff with the former Soviet Union and a relentless race to build more bombs.

Today the nuclear threat is no longer prominent among America's security challenges. The arsenal has shrunk — in size and stature. The Air Force struggles to demonstrate the relevance of its aging ICBMs in a world worried more about terrorism and cyberwar and accustomed to 21st century weapons such as drones.

This new reality is not lost on the young men and women who in most cases were "volunteered" for ICBM jobs.

Andrew Neal, 28, who completed a four-year tour in September with F.E. Warren's 90th Missile Wing in Wyoming, where he served as a Minuteman 3 launch officer, said he saw marked swings in morale.

"Morale was low at times — very low," Neal said in an interview, though he added that his comrades worked hard.

Neal says his generation has a different view of nuclear weapons.

"We all acknowledge their importance, but at the same time we really don't think the mission is that critical," Neal said, adding that his peers see the threat of full-scale nuclear war as "simply non-existent." So "we practice for all-out nuclear war, but we know that isn't going to happen."

Every hour of every day, 90 launch officers are on duty in underground command posts that control Minuteman 3 missiles. Inside each buried capsule are two officers responsible for 10 missiles, each in a separate silo, armed with one or more nuclear warheads and ready for launch within minutes

They await a presidential launch order that has never arrived in the more than 50-year history of American ICBMs. The duty can be tiresome, with long hours, limited opportunities for career advancement and the constraints of life in remote areas of the north-central U.S., like Minot Air Force Base, N.D.

In his doctoral dissertation published in 2010 after he finished a four-year tour with the 91st Missile Wing at Minot, Christopher J. Ewing said 71 of the 99 launch officers he surveyed there had not chosen that assignment.

Robert L. Goldich, a leading authority on defense and military personnel issues, reviewed the RAND findings for the AP and concluded that they show the effects over time of the perception that nuclear weapons have been "shunted off" to the sidelines of national priorities.

"I think it confirms that the bottom fell out of the apparent relevance of strategic nuclear weapons at the end of the Cold War," Goldich said.

RAND was looking for possible explanations for a trend worrying the Air Force — higher levels of personal and professional misconduct within the ICBM force relative to the rest of the Air Force. Courts-martial in the ICBM force, for example, were 129 percent higher than in the Air Force as a whole in 2011, on a per capita basis, and 145 percent higher in 2012. Cases handled by administrative punishment were 29 percent above overall Air Force levels in 2011 and 23 percent above in 2012.

On Wednesday the Air Force provided the AP with statistics indicating that courts-martial and reports of spousal abuse are on a downward trend in recent months, while still higher than the overall Air Force in percentage terms. Administrative punishments also are trending downward.

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