The business of using a nuclear arsenal to discourage other nations from attacking you often boils down to respect: If they respect your ability and conviction to use your nukes, they're a whole lot less likely to come after you. So it's understandably worrying to US leadership that the Air Force personnel in charge of the United States' 450 land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) aren't currently commanding a whole lot of respect.
In fact, in recent months, things have gone from bad to worse for the beleaguered Air Force nuclear weapons program. In early January, inspectors busted 34 officers for charges related to cheating on readiness and proficiency tests. Last week, amid an ongoing high-profile, in-depth review of Pentagon nuclear forces, 58 more officers were suspended from duty. That brings the total number of suspensions to 92, or nearly 1 in 5 Air Force nuclear missile launch officers.
Since October 2013, the Department of Defense has fired three top nuke generals for a variety of reasons, ranging from getting hammered in Moscow — possibly in the company of Russian spies — to counterfeiting casino chips. Meanwhile, recent force-wide inspections have turned up illegal drug use, lax enforcement of security standards, and those attempts to cheat on proficiency tests. In response to these problems, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and the new Secretary of the Air Force, Deborah Lee James, are trying to make it clear that they’re serious about getting the Air Force’s nuclear program in order. They’ve summoned top brass to the Pentagon, made public tours of missile bases, held press conferences, and raised bureaucratic hell.
The US nuclear arsenal consists of three systems, often referred to together as the nuclear “triad": the Navy’s submarine-launched ballistic missiles, the Air Force’s nuclear bombs and bombers, and the Air Force’s land-based ballistic missiles. The US has long-relied on this three-pronged approach because each of the three delivery systems involve tradeoffs: accuracy, response time, survivability, range, payload, flexibility, and so on. As a result, each has a different but complementary role in the broader US nuclear deterrent. Nuclear weapons are doing their jobs when they’re not being used, because using one means the nuke failed as a deterrent.
In order for nukes to do their jobs, however, three things have to happen. One, the world must agree that getting nuked would be absolutely horrific. Two, there must always be someone ready to press the launch button. And three, the rest of the world needs to know that there is someone always ready to press the launch button.
If other nations begin to question whether the military is disciplined enough to manage its nukes, it adds uncertainty to the situation. And when there’s uncertainty about the effectiveness of a deterrent, people start taking risks they’d never take otherwise. This is why people routinely jaywalk — police are terrible at enforcing the law. But when nations start to question a country’s nuclear deterrent, gambles can result not in improperly crossed streets, but in mushroom cloud-shaped miscalculations.
Loud questions about whether or not the US nuclear weapons program is firing on all cylinders go back to at least 2007, when personnel at Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota accidentally loaded six cruise missiles with live nuclear warheads (each with a yield of up to 150 kilotons, or about 10 times that of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima) on a B-52 bomber. Unaware of this fact, the bomber crew flew them to Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana, where they sat for 36 hours until the Air Force finally figured out where their pesky missing nukes had gotten to.
Heads subsequently rolled at the Department of Defense (DOD); both the civilian head of the Air Force and the top Air Force military man were fired in an effort to make it very clear that losing nuclear weapons is frowned upon. The Air Force then reorganized its entire command structure, refocused attention on its nuclear program, commissioned studies and reports, and generally made a big deal about getting its act together.
Out of this push came a series of reports from the Defense Science Board (DSB) — a top-level DOD advisory group — that examined the state of the USAF nuclear force. The final April 2013 report directly addressed the people tasked with the nuclear mission. The DSB found that they were generally serious, competent professionals, but that their performance was being compromised by serious morale problems.
These problems were driven by two perceptions held by much of the nuclear force. First, that inspection, testing, and other readiness measures had turned into absurd, petty bureaucratic nonsense. Second, that their jobs were held with contempt by both civilians and other military figures. And in the past, the idea that ICBMs were nothing more than embarrassing Cold War relics has been reinforced by the statements of the President and Secretary of Defense.
The job of managing and securing the nation’s ICBMs is boring by design, but still, it’s not terribly hard to imagine working hard every day might lose its appeal if you’re living under the thumb of inspectors who seem hell-bent on nailing you to the wall for any technicality they can find, while the people at the top of your command structure seem bound and determined to cut you down in public and downsize you out of a job.
Which brings us back to the current raft of disciplinary and morale issues, and why top military leadership is going through a whole lot of public handwringing about the US nuclear arsenal. Part of the reason for this is to show the people who actually work with nukes that the military and the public both think the jobs they do are vitally important. The other part of it, however, is related to deterrence. US military and civilian leadership needs to convince everyone else in the world that the United States has its act together when it comes to its nuclear arsenal.
After all, if you don’t respect yourself, how can you expect anyone else to?