US nuclear missile force faces questions about their discipline, their professionalism and even the rationale for their job

Robert Burns, “When do nuclear missteps put security in jeopardy?,” AP, 18 January 2014

The disclosures of disturbing behavior by nuclear missile officers are mounting and now include alleged drug use and exam cheating. Yet Air Force leaders insist the trouble is episodic, correctible and not cause for public worry. …

Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James, just four weeks into her tenure as the service’s top civilian official, told reporters Wednesday that the Air Force’s chief investigative arm is investigating 11 officers at six bases who are suspected of illegal drug possession.

She said that probe led to a separate investigation of dozens of nuclear missile launch officers for cheating on routine tests of their knowledge of the tightly controlled procedures required to launch missiles under their control.

At least 34 launch officers, all at Malmstrom Air Force Base, Mont., have had their security clearances suspended and are not allowed to perform launch duties pending the outcome of the investigation.

They stand accused of cheating, or tolerating cheating by others, on a routine test of their knowledge of how to execute “emergency war orders.” Those are the highly classified procedures the officers would use, upon orders from the president, to launch their nuclear-tipped missiles. …

The men and women who are entrusted with the keys to the nation’s 450 intercontinental ballistic missiles, each with at least one nuclear warhead capable of inflicting mass destruction halfway around the globe, are among the youngest officers in the Air Force. They are mostly 20-something lieutenants and captains, a generation removed from the Cold War years of a nuclear standoff with a Soviet Union that no longer exists.

Their competence is not in question, only their motivation in a job that some see as unrewarding and overly stressful. Also in question is the quality of leadership by the generals above them, some of whom never did ICBM launch duty. …

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Daniel de Luce, “US nuclear missile force poses a headache for military,” AFP, 19 January 2014

After announcing 34 officers had been suspended over the cheating at Malmstrom base in Montana, Air Force leaders called the scandal “unacceptable” and vowed to rectify the problem.

But concerns about declining standards in the intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) force are nothing new.

The trouble began after the demise of the Soviet Union, as the mission gradually received a lower priority and offered a less promising career path.

“Since the end of the Cold War, the Air Force level and intensity of concentration on its nuclear mission has declined conspicuously,” a Pentagon review found in 2008. …

In recent months, two senior commanders have been sacked for misbehavior, including the head of the ICBM force after he went on a drunken bender in a trip to Russia.

In October, officials said missile officers were caught twice failing to close the blast doors on their bunkers, violating a strict security rule. And authorities say crew members are under criminal investigation for illegal drug possession. …

With 450 ICBMs at three bases in Montana, North Dakota and Wyoming, more than 500 officers manage the weapons around the clock in steel cocoons 100 feet (30 meters) underground, rehearsing launch protocols again and again.

A former launch officer, John Noonan, has described the work as often tedious and solitary, except for the occasional “virtual” nuclear war exercise.

“Being a missileer means that your worst enemy is boredom. No battlefield heroism, no medals to be won,” Noonan wrote in Wired magazine’s “Danger Room” blog in 2011.

“The duty is seen today as a dull anachronism.” …

“There’s no purpose to their mission anymore,” said Joseph Cirincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund, which promotes reducing nuclear weapons stockpiles.

The launch officers “pull 12, 24-hour shifts in underground bunkers waiting to push a button they know they’re never going to push,” said Cirincione, an author who also has served as an adviser to President Barack Obama’s administration. …

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