The slow-motion crisis in America’s nuclear force

OopsSo last week it came out that cheating on proficiency tests is widespread among officers in the U.S. Air Force’s nuclear command:

The case involving 34 officers with the 341st Missile Wing stemmed from a drug possession investigation at multiple air bases in the United States and overseas. Two of those caught up in the cheating episode have been linked to the other probe, officials said.

Sixteen officers were ultimately found to have actually cheated on the monthly proficiency exam while the rest knew the answers had been shared with others and did not report the violation, the Pentagon said.

This would be less worrisome if it were an isolated incident, but it isn’t. There has been a steady drumbeat of horror stories out of the nuclear force — mostly the Air Force’s part of the nuclear force, the Global Strike Command — for a while now.

The tale of the tape:

And that’s just in the last 12 months! It doesn’t include other incidents going back even further, like the 2007 incident where a B-52 bomber was mistakenly loaded with live nuclear warheads. (It took 36 hours in that case for anyone to even notice that the live warheads were missing. During all that time they sat unsecured in the plane on the tarmac at Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana.)

The initial response to the cheating incident has been to blame the Air Force’s requirement that officers achieve a perfect score on the tests in question; this is supposed to have created an environment where officers felt pressure to pass at any cost. But to my mind, that’s a dodge. The reason why officers are expected to achieve a perfect score on these tests is because they are entrusted with the operation of nuclear weapons. There isn’t a lot of margin for error in that line of work.

Why officers in the nuclear force are held to a high standard — and why that’s a problem today

The expectation of high performance by officers in the nuclear command is nothing new. It goes back to the Global Strike Command’s predecessor organization, the Strategic Air Command, and the notorious perfectionism of the man who turned SAC into one of the Cold War’s most fearsomely efficient weapons, General Curtis LeMay. LeMay expected excellence from his officers, and he ran them mercilessly until he got it. So it’s not like it can’t be done.

The deeper, underlying reason for these incidents is more fundamental. LeMay was able to wring extraordinary performance out of SAC’s officers because, in his time, SAC was a prestige post. It was the front line of defense in the nation’s most strategically important conflict, the Cold War with the Soviet Union. Even when other wars cropped up, like Korea and Vietnam, they were viewed by the Powers That Be as sideshows, distractions from the Big Mission of deterring Soviet aggression.

This is important, because career military officers know that the way to earn promotions and work their way up the command ladder is to be part of the missions the service views as crucial. Generals naturally put the people they consider their best men and women onto the missions whose success is the most critical — the ones where talent and good judgement are most sorely needed. Taking on one of those missions, and excelling at it, is a great way for a junior officer to demonstrate that he or she really is one of The Best. And building a reputation as one of The Best can provide an ambitious officer with a big boost over their peers as they scramble up the greasy pole of promotion.

This meant that, as long as the Cold War went on, SAC attracted a steady stream of the Air Force’s best and brightest. And those it attracted were willing to put in the work to live up to LeMay’s high standards, because they knew that by doing so — by demonstrating that they could do so — they were marking themselves out as the general officers of the future.

Then, of course, the Cold War ended, and 9/11 happened, and everything changed. Suddenly the nuclear force wasn’t the main thing holding back the nation’s #1 enemy anymore; it was a weapon aimed at nobody, a force without a mission. The enemies of the 21st century were ragged militias holing up in caves, not Evil Empires with nukes of their own. So the way for ambitious young officers to stand out was no longer to sign up for tours in the underground missile command posts; it was to be somewhere where they could make a contribution to the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, like flying light tactical aircraft, organizing the flow of supplies to the front by airlift, or building the next generation of unmanned drones. Those were the jobs that could accelerate a career. Tending missiles that no one knew quite what to do with anymore meant being put on the sidelines.

The result has been twofold. First, the stream of talented officers that used to go into the nuclear force chooses today to go into other commands, if they can. Second, those officers who are put into the missile force suffer from low morale, because they know that the posting is a dead-end career-wise. The generals of tomorrow are not sitting in Global Strike Command’s B-52s or Minuteman silos, and the people who are sitting in those places know that. So they’re less eager to live up to high standards of discipline and performance, because from that perspective, what’s the point?

Solving the problem: we need fewer nuclear weapons, better maintained

The problem, of course, is that there is a point. Nuclear weapons are incredibly dangerous things to work with, or work around. A mistake involving them could kill lots of innocent people or start a war that we never intended to fight. So the solution can’t be to relax the disciplinary standards. Nuclear weapons will always require an extraordinarily high standard of safety, whether living up to that standard is glamorous or not.

Really, the only solution I can think of is a radical downsizing of the nation’s nuclear arsenal. If we can’t make serving in the nuclear force something that the best officers naturally want to do — and I seriously doubt that pay raises for missileers are going to do that, since people motivated primarily by money tend not to make a career in the military in the first place — we can at least cut down the number of people needed to tend those aging weapons. A smaller force would be easier to police for performance problems, wouldn’t be as big a bucket for other commands to dump their problem officers into, and would cut down on the risk of accidents just by reducing the number of interactions officers have with nuclear weapons in a given time period.

Ever since the 1950s, the American nuclear force has been structured in what became known as the “nuclear triad.” This refers to a force structure with three main elements:  warheads dropped from manned bombers, warheads delivered by land-based missiles, and warheads delivered by missiles launched from submarines. This concept of the triad has become an fundamental part of American strategic thinking regarding nuclear weapons; if one or even two legs of the triad get knocked out by an enemy, the argument goes, the other legs will still be there to strike back. In this way the different types of delivery systems help protect against each others’ vulnerabilities.

The problem with this, however, is that the legs of the triad are not all of equal length. Some of them are much more vulnerable than the others. Probably the safest, and therefore the most dependable in a crisis, is the Navy’s nuclear missile submarines; they are hard to detect, making it difficult for enemies to find and sink them, and can deliver their warheads anywhere around the world thanks to their long range of sailing and of their missiles. The second most survivable is the Air Force’s manned bombers; while surface-to-air missiles have made dropping bombs from directly overhead World War II-style a suicide mission, modern bombers can use cruise missiles to strike targets from a great distance, and it’s hard to knock them out on the ground because they can be moved from airfield to airfield as needed. The most vulnerable leg of the triad is probably the Air Force’s ground-based missiles; they strike from a distance too, but they can’t be moved around to avoid an enemy’s missiles, and unlike a bomber they can’t be called back after launch or put into a holding pattern while diplomats negotiate.

(And even worse, unlike the other two, the ground-based missiles are sort of hard-wired to only attack Russia. That’s great if Russia is the country we’re at war with, not so much if it’s somebody else.)

Unfortunately, from an interservice-rivalry perspective, this means that if you were going to cut down from the triad to a single delivery mechanism, you’d pick the Navy’s submarines and cut the Air Force out of the nuclear mission entirely, which would result in ferocious opposition from the Air Force and its partisans on Capitol Hill. So, while that would be the most rational thing to do, it’s probably not possible. But there really is no reason, in 2014, not to at least get rid of the land-based missiles, which are (not to put too fine a point on it, but) relics of a bygone age. There’s just no good strategic rationale for keeping them. They don’t make us appreciably safer than we would be without them — bombers and subs would still be able to inflict overwhelming damage on any conceivable opponent. And since they require delicate handling to operate safely, there’s an argument to be made that they make us less safe, at least as long as maintaining and operating them isn’t the sort of mission that attracts the Air Force’s best and brightest anymore. They just present opportunities for someone to screw up and cause a disaster. Getting rid of them removes that risk, costs us very little, and gives us moral standing to demand that Russia (the only nation with anywhere near as large a nuclear arsenal as ours) cut back on their own land-based missiles too.

So here’s your first step towards a saner, safer nuclear force structure for the United States: get rid of the ballistic missiles. It’s not a complete solution, but at least it’s a start.


Brian B

January 21, 2014
9:48 pm

Very interesting post, bit disturbing as well. I can’t imagine these underground ICBMs bring in too much profit to the states that house them, so I figure it must be inter-agency bs that keeps them around. That and maybe the inertia that comes with a huge bureaucracy.