May 14, 2013: Strategy Page
The U.S. Air Force recently had still more serious problems with the troops who handle, and operate, its nuclear weapons. This time 17 officers were relieved from ICBM launch duty. This suspension is only supposed to last for two months or so, assuming that training and attitude problems can be fixed. There is some doubt that these problems can be fixed.
These 17 officers are among the ones who actually launch ICBMs. Two of them are in charge of ten silos, each containing an ICBM. The two officers monitor the readiness of those missiles and, if they receive orders, both have to agree to launch their missiles. Each pair of launch officers is in a separate underground bunker and five of these bunkers are in the same area, each with ten nearby ICBM silos. Each pair of launch officers can, if need be, take over control of another launch control team’s missiles if that launch team’s bunker is destroyed or put out of action.
The 17 launch control officers were suspended because a surprise inspection revealed that they did not know all the details of their jobs they were supposed to know. There was apparently a breakdown in training and leadership in their squadron (which controls 50 silos) and wing (which controls three squadrons). Air force leaderships also believes that there is still an attitude problem among those who maintain and operate the ICBMs.
Problems with training, leadership and attitude among troops who handle and operate nuclear weapons were first noted in the 1990s, after the Cold War ended. The problems have been getting more and more attention in the last decade. Back in 2009 it became obvious that the situation was getting worse. That’s because twice that year the air force had to relieve the commander of a combat wing. One was a B-52 bomber wing while the other was a Minuteman ICBM wing. In the case of the ICBM wing two other senior officers were also relieved (one of them the guy in charge of the Wing Maintenance Squadron.) In both cases, the reason was "loss of confidence in his ability to command". That's milspeak for "too many little things have gone wrong and you are making your bosses nervous."
In the case of the dismissed missile Wing commander there had been two accidents with the large trailers that move the missiles. A vehicle accident is normally not grounds for removing a Wing commander but in this case it was just one of many problems. Two missile wings also failed their Nuclear Safety Inspection. There were also incidents of misconduct by members of the Wing that lost its commander. Too many problems and the commander becomes a problem.
In 2009 many nuclear weapons units were having problems with the two week long Nuclear Safety Inspections that take place every 18 months. Because of the embarrassing problems with nuclear weapons security over the previous three years, these inspections had become stricter. Scary inspections have become fashionable again, and commanders who don't get with the program are headed for early retirement.
These inspections are not unique or a surprise. All of the Missile Wings have been based where they are for over four decades. The word comes down the chain of command about what is expected, and if anyone screws up, officers (or, more rarely, NCOs) are relieved and careers are ruined. Heads did not roll in 2009 just for specific inspection failures. The word from on-high was that the units handling nuclear weapons had to be over-the-top fanatic about nuclear safety and security. This was a switch from then current practices. By 2009 the attitude was that if there is a pattern of failure, the commander gets relieved and life goes on. But this alone was not fixing the problems.
This persistent problem resulted in the return of the old SAC (Strategic Air Command) attitude. This is one of those rare cases where it is recognized that the Good Old Days were better, or in this case, meaner, tougher, more effective and safer. In 2009 that led to the establishment of the Global Strike Command (GSC). This outfit would, as SAC once did, control all air force nuclear weapons and delivery systems (ICBMs and heavy bombers.) This came sixteen years of trying to do without SAC.
In 1992 SAC, which had control of air force nuclear bombers and missiles since 1946, was disbanded and the ICBMs, and their crews, were transferred to the new Space Command. SAC had long been the butt of many jokes, for being uptight and fanatical about security, discipline and the myriad details for handling nukes. Everyone tolerated this because, after all, SAC had charge of all those nukes, heavy bombers and ICBMs. When Space Command took over, they eased up on the tight discipline and strictness about procedure that had been the hallmark of SAC for decades. The old timers complained, but many of the young troops liked the new, looser, attitudes.
Officers operating the ICBMs were no longer career "missileers", but Space Command people. Time that used to be spent on studying nuclear weapons security and missile maintenance issues, was now devoted to subjects of more concern to Space Command (satellites and communications, for example). Standards fell, efficiency slipped. Then in 2005, the missile crews lost their Missile Badge, and had it replaced with a generic Space Command badge.
Then, in 2007, there was much angst when it was discovered that six nuclear cruise missiles had accidentally been mounted on a B-52 and flown halfway across the country. How could this happen? The old timers knew. While many of these older officers and NCOs were pleased when SAC went away early in their careers, they knew that it was that act, and the subsequent "loosening up", that led to the lax attitudes that put those six nukes on that B-52. All this was part of a major, post-Cold War reorganization of the USAF. It was the beginning of the end of a decades old tradition of handling nuclear weapons safely and securely.
In 2008, the air force brass reinstated the Missile Badge, for any missile crew member who belonged to a missile crew that was certified CMR (passed some strenuous inspections to be declared Combat Mission Ready). The badge had been used for decades, until 2005, when it was withdrawn and replaced by the generic "Space Wings" of the USAF Space Command, which took control of the ICBMs in 1993. SAC, it turns out, has been coming back quietly for quite some time, both for the bomber units, as well as the missile ones.
But as the recent failures indicate, not everyone has gotten with the program. Among the new SAC people there were many who were still “Space Command” at heart. This is attributed to the fact that with the end of the Cold War in 1991 the strategic nuclear weapons were no longer as crucial as they had been since the late 1940s. For decades the United States and Russia (as the Soviet Union) each had thousands of nuclear armed ballistic missiles (and a few hundred bombers) aimed at each other. That got the attention of people in SAC and encouraged everyone to concentrate. After 1991, the incentive was no longer there and it is still not there. But when you are handling nukes, the old SAC fanaticism is still the best way to go.