Russ Wellen

You may have heard about cheating on tests among nuclear-missile launch officers at Malmstrom (Montana) Air Force Base. It’s part of a larger scandal that the Associated Press’ Robert Burns, who has been the trailblazer on this ongoing story, described in January as “deliberate violations of safety rules, failures of inspections,” and “breakdowns in training.” The cheating, as Burns wrote on March 27, “involved unauthorized passing of answers to exams designed to test missile launch officers’ proficiency in handling ‘emergency war orders,’ which are messages involving the targeting and launching of missiles.” The upshot: nine mid-level officers were removed from their jobs and dozens of others disciplined.

Nor does the cheating seem to be confined to Malmstrom. In the New York Times, Helene Cooper quoted nuclear-security authority (and former missile-launch control officer) Bruce Blair: “The Air Force is either in denial, or it muffed the investigation. Cheating has been extensive and pervasive at all the missile bases going back for decades."

Two issues are at play. One is the nature of the testing. In his January piece, Burns reported that Air Force sources “suggested that it reflected an unhealthy pressure from commanders to achieve perfect test scores.

For examples of how difficult the test questions are, see Mark Thompson’s Time article titled Are You Smarter Than a Nuclear Launch Officer? Thompson also writes:

Scoring 100% on these tests has been the only way to earn promotions within the missile force, and possibly escape from it, ex-Air Force missileers say. [Re what’s emphasized: hold that thought.]

Meanwhile, recently appointed Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James, reports Brian Everstine at the Air Force Times, says she is “going to get to the bottom of this.” Still, she trotted out some empathy: “The need for perfection has created way too much stress and way too much fear.”

Today, the culture of rampant testing―which has overrun our primary and secondary schools―has accrued almost as much of a bad rep as cultures of cheating. Though, of course, they’re joined at the hip. Overly rigorous testing puts students on the back foot: They become defensive and hunker down in a survival mode. Cynical, bereft of respect for those administering the tests, they perceive they’re being treated unfairly, their scruples go out the window―and they cheat. But when it comes to nuclear weapons, no matter much the public has soured on testing, most don’t want to hear that those responsible for The Fate of the Earth (pace―and RIP―Jonathan Schell) are being held to standards that are too high. 

The second issue at play, exacerbated by the excessive testing and implicit in Thompson’s phrase “possibly escape from it,” is alluded to by Burns. 

Missile launch crew members, known within the Air Force as missileers, typically are ages 22 to 27. The investigation report released by the Air Force said that of 15 trainees at Vandenberg who participated in a focus group discussion with investigators, “no individual wanted to be a missileer. 

Or, as Thompson wrote at Time:

Most who serve in the underground bunkers overseeing the nation’s fleet of 450 Minuteman III missiles did not volunteer for the assignment, and many want to leave.

In other words, morale is low. In November of last year, Burns reported: “Key members of the Air Force’s nuclear missile force are feeling ‘burnout’ from what they see as exhausting, unrewarding and stressful work, according to an unpublished study” by the RAND Corp. that the Air Force commissioned. It also cites “heightened levels of misconduct like spousal abuse and says court-martial rates in the nuclear missile force in 2011 and 2012 were more than twice as high as in the overall Air Force.”

Of course, writes Burns, “This has always been considered hard duty, in part due to the enormous responsibility of safely operating nuclear missiles,” especially during the Cold War. But, as tensions between the United States and Russia have ratcheted down (with the occasional upward spike, such as over Crimea), “the nuclear threat is no longer prominent among America's security challenges.” In fact, the “arsenal has shrunk―in size and stature.” As a result: “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.” Burns quoted a missileer (yes, they really call them that), who recently completed a tour of duty.

“We all acknowledge their importance, but at the same time we really don't think the mission is that critical,” … adding that his peers see the threat of full-scale nuclear war as “simply nonexistent.” So “we practice for all-out nuclear war, but we know that isn't going to happen.” [Shouldn’t there be wood to knock on in a nuclear bunker, expressly for that purpose? – RW]

Still, they see the writing on the wall. Nuclear weapons may be, at best, a century away from total elimination. But in this year’s Omnibus Spending Bill, six percent of funding was cut from what the National Nuclear Security Administration asked for warhead research, development, production, and related activities.

One can’t help but wonder if the feelings of futility that the nuclear-launch officers are experiencing beget the kind of carelessness that can lead to an accidental launch. At his website Nuclear Risk, Martin Hellman, cryptographer and Stanford Professor Emeritus of Electrical Engineering emeritus, commented about a speech to STRATCOM (the military command that includes nuclear weapons) made by Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, in which he said of the scandal: “Perfection must be the standard for our nuclear forces.” Hellman: 

Unfortunately, saying that perfection is required, does not mean perfection is achieved. After all, “to err is human.” So why are we relying on nuclear deterrence when just one mistake could destroy our homeland, and us along with it?

Especially when those who most directly interface with said deterrence may be affected by an underlying apathy about the whole enterprise. What’s seldom acknowledged is that, with the passage of time, the odds of a nuclear accident occurring are increasingly against us, as Hellman has detailed elsewhere.

Also, one is inclined to wonder if today’s missileers, raised in a culture that’s become almost as much anti-nuclear as it is pro-, are susceptible to bouts of conscience about the devastating impact of a launch that they might, in theory, still be called upon to carry out. That may be giving them too much credit. Most likely, though, as the RAND report sums up, it’s just “a toxic mix of frustration and aggravation, heightened by a sense of being unappreciated, overworked, micromanaged and at constant risk of failure.”

Okay, let’s be frank about what may be nuclear-launch officers’ most deep-seated source of dissatisfaction. With the odds that they will be called upon to initiate a launch sequence minimized, many missileers may believe that their big chance to play a pivotal role in history (by, well, ending it, but that’s another story) has, for all intents and purposes, dried up. In other words, the real reason that nuclear-launch officers are alienated and/or depressed may be frustration that they can’t set the damn things off. Of course, to most the rest of us, what’s eating them is cause for celebration.

Returning to Hellman’s point, only one true solution exists to a system in which our national security is at the mercy of officers who would rather be elsewhere. Nuclear deterrence needs to be jettisoned as the weapons of first resort (as deterrence) as well as last (when launched). Needless to say, that won’t be happening anytime soon. 

No doubt, though, as with many shortcomings in civil service and government, the call will go out to privatize. After all nuclear labs such as Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore are privately run. Can’t you just see Malmstrom managed by the London-based “global security” behemoth G4S? I can’t either. 

Worries about U.S. nuclear-launch officers asleep at the wheel, as well as Islamist extremists getting their hands on Pakistan’s nuclear weapons, could all be subdued if we just did away with the damn things. Every other attempt at a solution, such as attempting to understand and address missileers’ concerns about being marginalized, falls frighteningly short.

Russ Wellen, who serves as the editor of the Foreign Policy in Focus blog Focal Points, is a student of the metaphysics of nuclear weapons.

Image via The Raw Story