The guys babysitting our missiles in Montana couldn’t agree more.
—By Josh Harkinson
“Nothing the Air Force is doing is going to reduce the risk. It’s not missileers who are at fault, it’s the mission.”
The latest review, which was expected to be released this week, was conducted by Retired General James Welch, a former top nuclear commander whom the Pentagon has tapped repeatedly to assess problems with its nuclear oversight. In 2007, Welch led the initial outside review of what remains the worst nuclear weapons scandal in recent years: Six nuclear missiles went missing for 36 hours after a crew at Minot Air Force Base mistakenly loaded them onto a plane and flew them across the country. (See our timeline: “That Time We Almost Nuked North Carolina.”) Welch later directed two follow-up assessments in April 2011 and April 2013, the last of which noted improvements and concluded that “the nuclear force is professional, disciplined, committed and attentive to the special demands of the mission.”
But that conclusion was quickly called into question by a string of new scandals, as detailed in “Death Wears Bunny Slippers,” my recent feature story about the ICBM program. In the months following Welch’s review, 98 missileers were implicated in a cheating scandal and nine midlevel commanders were fired; a leaked email from the commander of the nuclear missile wing at North Dakota’s Minot Air Force base complained of “rot” in the missile force; and Gen. Michael Carey was removed as commander of the ICBM program after an official trip to Russia, where he engaged in “inappropriate behavior,” including heavy drinking, rudeness to his hosts, and associating with “suspect” women. Just last week, the Air Force fired two high-level commanders in the ICBM program and disciplined a third for various leadership lapses, including the maltreatment of subordinates.
Welch has since distanced himself from last year’s rosy assessment. His spokesman told the AP that the 2013 report was addressing organizational aspects of the nuclear mission and not primarily personnel and attitude issues.
The Air Force has long struggled to create a balance between strong oversight of missileers and the need to create a rewarding work environment that attracts talented recruits. Following the 2007 missing-nukes scandal, the Air Force instituted a regimen of strict tests and inspections that “was as much punishment as it was rigor,” Lt. General Stanley Kowalski, now the Deputy Commander of US Strategic Command, said at the time. In a follow-up report three years later, Welch suggested that the strategy had backfired by sowing mistrust and creating a sense of “nuclear paranoia”—talented airmen were avoiding nuclear weapons jobs.
According to the AP, Hagel will seek to invest an additional $1 to $10 billion in the nuclear program and promote its top commanders to give the nuclear wing more clout within the Air Force bureaucracy.
During my reporting for “Death Wears Bunny Slippers,” I interviewed a slew of nuclear policy experts and traveled to Great Falls, Montana—home to Malmstrom Air Force Base—where I spent time with current and former missileers. They told me of the mind-numbing boredom of babysitting ICBMs for 24 hours straight, of cheating on proficiency tests, of how one colonel made them shit in a box because he didn’t want to take the missiles offline to fix the toilets. They were basically dying to get the hell out.
The consensus among the experts was that no amount of funding or attention will be enough to fix the ICBM program’s biggest problem: obsolescence. “I am deeply disappointed with the happy talk coming out of the Air Force and Department of Defense on this,” Joseph Cirincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund, a foundation focused on nuclear weapons policy, told me. (Disclosure: Ploughshares has provided some funding for Mother Jones’ national security reporting.) “These missileers are in dead-end jobs and they know it. They pull 24-hour shifts underground waiting to push a button that they know they are never going to push, and if they did, they would be condemning hundreds of thousands of civilians to death. What kind of job is that? New helicopters and new managers are not going to fix this problem. Nothing the Air Force is doing is going to reduce the risk. It’s not missileers who are at fault, it’s the mission.”