Russ Wellen

More and more of our jobs are replaced by software, robots, and other forms of technology. Of course, in their mad quest to cut payroll, corporations forget that, bereft of a paycheck, not to mention will (thus far, anyway), technology can’t buy their goods and services as theirs and other corporations’ paid employees would. For now, we’ll just file that under the category of “Suppose They Threw an Economy and No One Came” and move on to the theme of this post.

In fact, some jobs that continue to exist should be obsolete. Doorman or something similar aside, we’ll stick to national defense today. What immediately springs to mind is drone operator teams: the pilot who controls the drone and fires the missile, and the sensor who, once it’s launched, guides the missile. Alas, not only is that technology still in its youth, it’s a growth industry.

Turning our attention to an older weapon system, the case is often made that nuclear weapons have outgrown their usefulness (as if they ever had any). They’re perceived as unlikely to be used in warfare, their utility confined to deterrence. In fact, as I wrote at Warscapes recently, many of those in the Air Force who work as nuclear-missile launch officers have come to think of their assignments as dead-end jobs. As Robert Burns of the Associated Press, the frontrunner on this ongoing story, has written, first they began to violate safety rules and fail inspections. Then launch officers, or missileers as they’re called, at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana, were caught cheating on tests. By the way, that discovery was a byproduct of an investigation into drug dealing among the units. 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 conclusion of Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James? “The need for perfection has created way too much stress and way too much fear.” Consequently, writes Rachel Oswald in Global Security Newswire, “The Air Force is simplifying the way it grades nuclear-missile officers on their monthly exams.” In fact, it has “made the monthly [certification] test pass-fail.” Meanwhile, the investigation is spreading from the intercontinental missile crews to those that fly bombers capable of dropping nuclear weapons. 

At Slate, R. Jeffrey Smith recently provided a useful overview that captures the tedium of a job which, in the blink of an eye, could turn into the most interesting job in the world. A ratio skewed in favor of waiting over action is common to war in general. But with nuclear weapons it’s taken to extremes. (Thank goodness ― if nuclear weapons must exist ― for small favors.) Smith wrote:    

Every day 90 uniformed men and women in their mid-20s ride elevators 40 to 60 feet below remote fields in Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, North Dakota, and Nebraska in rote preparation for improbable nuclear Armageddon.
They spend some of their 24-hour alerts seated in front of steel Minuteman III missile launch control panels[which are] capable of hurling 10 to 50 nuclear warheads … to the other side of the globe, at speeds of 15,000 mph.
But their day-to-day enemy, for decades, has not so much been another superpower, but the unremitting boredom of an isolated posting that demands extreme vigilance, while also requiring virtually no activity, according to accounts by missileers and a new internal review of their work.       

Though it might not be apparent yet, we’re beginning to zero in on why the job of a missileer should be obsolete. Smith linked to an article titled Silent Sentinels in the January 2012 Airman (The Official Magazine of the United States Air Force). Author Dianne Moffett reports on their training at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California in above-ground capsules before they’re stationed underground.                

On day zero, the Friday before training begins, students go through eight hours of orientation … [Training squad commander Lt. Col. Mike Kamorski] interviews all students to assess their reliability and to ensure they’re willing to execute nuclear weapons if ordered.

“As part of the interview, we have a very candid discussion about the weapons; what the students’ thoughts are about nuclear weapons; whether they have any reservations or hesitations, and we talk through it all,” Kamorski said.

The most important part of day zero, Kamorski said, is the first question each Airman must answer: This job involves the execution of nuclear weapons. Can you do that?
If the student says no, the commander needs to know as soon as possible, so he can link the appropriate resources to help reconcile the student’s issues. Resources such as a judge advocate, chaplain or mental health clinician are available and can help the student determine if he or she is qualified for ICBM training.

In the Warscapes post alluded to above, I suggested that much of the missileers’ dissatisfaction was, at root, a result of their frustration over the unlikelihood that they would ever get a chance to actually set off a nuclear weapon. But what about trainees who are ambivalent about the position in which they find themselves? What words of wisdom, one wonders, would a judge advocate, a chaplain, or a mental health clinician impart to an ambivalent trainee? To avoid the need to cull him or her ― after all, candidates are limited and training expensive ― will they seek to ease fledgling missileers’ concerns by dealing, respectively, with the legality of nuclear weapons within the context of just war doctrine (the judge advocate’s task), their moral justification (the chaplain’s), and their rationality (the mental health clinician’s)?
As you can guess, the professionals have their work cut out for them. Beginning with the moral, imagine that a missileer receives a command from the White House to execute a first strike. If carried out, it would be nothing less than the most grievous act of violence in the history of the human race, well beyond Hiroshima and Nagasaki, not to mention the bombing of Tokyo and other Japanese cities, and Dresden and other German cities that were firebombed.

Launching on warning in response to a massive attack by the enemy would be only incrementally less heinous. Theoretically, a proportionate response ― if proportions still maintain any meaning when dealing with those numbers ― is required for the principle of deterrence to obtain. If a state wishes to be feared, and thus deter, this line of thinking goes, its intention to follow through with retaliation needs to be a non-negotiable.

But when most of your side is about to be wiped out, the principle of deterrence no longer needs to be upheld. After all, the state won’t need to rely on nuclear deterrence again because either it will no longer exist or it will become obvious by the extent of the destruction that it can never use nuclear weapons again. Also few will be left to derive any satisfaction from either the sense of justice, or just plain revenge, provided by retaliation. The only way a missileer’s job can begin to be justified is if a state is engaged in an exchange of nuclear weapons that’s modified. (Incidentally, those exist only in nuclear strategists’ minds ― everyone else knows it would turn into total war.) The absurd lengths to which a chaplain and mental health clinician must go to defend moral depravity and insanity on a level never before seen soon become apparent.

A judge advocate is at an equal disadvantage. In 1996 the International Court of Justice (ICJ) issued an advisory opinion on the “Legality of Threat or Use of Nuclear Weapons.” It noted that prohibitions ordained by international law against inflicting indiscriminate harm were in place even before nuclear weapons were developed. Referring to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the ICJ ruled: “It inescapably follows that the bombings were illegal.” Furthermore, it stated:

 It is a “fundamental,” “cardinal,” and “intransgressible” rule that “States must never make civilians the object of attack and must consequently never use weapons that are incapable of distinguishing between civilians and military targets.”

Then, on April 24, at the Guardian, Julian Borger reported that, in an “unprecedented legal action,” the Marshall Islands, where 67 nuclear tests were conducted by the United States, has filed a lawsuit at the international court of justice at The Hague against the nine states currently in possession of nuclear weapons.

The Pacific chain of islands … argues it is justified in taking the action because of the harm it suffered as a result of the nuclear arms race. … “The long delay in fulfilling the obligations enshrined in article VI of the NPT constitutes a flagrant denial of human justice,” the court documents say.        

To refresh your memory, Article VI states:              

Each of the Parties to the Treaty undertakes to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.

The attitude of nuclear states to Article VI can be roughly summed up as, “Yeah, yeah, we’ll get to it one of these days.” Not only are nuclear weapons illegal because of their inability to distinguish between military and civilians, but the states in possession of them are in violation of the NPT mandate to disarm. Thus, missilers are asked to play integral roles in a scenario that’s palpably illegal, immoral, and insane. In other words, their jobs should not only be obsolete, they should never have existed.

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 watchmen-news.