Compensate missileers, reassess ICBM mission

The four words you never want to hear about nuclear weapons: lapses in security protocol.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel last month ordered a review of U.S. nuclear forces after revelations of gross misconduct among some Air Force officers in the nuclear force. The transgressions spanned from senior brass to junior officers to include illegal gambling, excessive drinking, womanizing, drug use, cheating on proficiency tests and -- perhaps worst of all -- lapses in security protocol. The 20th Air Force is responsible for the nation’s 450 land based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM). Senior nuclear leaders have two months to identify problems and recommend solutions to personnel issues documented by the media.

If the review only focuses on personnel issues, Hagel may be presented with temporary, insufficient fixes for what could be a broader issue with the mission of ICBMs in our national defense. The review panel should consider taking a portion of our ICBM force off 24-hour high alert status.

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Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James admitted there are “systemic problems” related to a culture that accepts nothing less than absolute perfection. While touring the three bases of the 20th Air Force in Montana, Wyoming and North Dakota, James said she “heard repeatedly from teammates that the need for perfection has created a climate of undue stress and fear” for their chances of promotion if they score even 95 percent on proficiency tests. This culture possibly led to the cheating scandal which removed security clearances for nearly half the launch officers, or missileers, at Malmstrom Air Force Base (AFB) outside Great Falls, Montana.

James observed that “Although…senior leaders talk about the importance of the mission, the team in the field doesn’t always see that talk backed up by concrete action.” Senior leaders should not try to prove the importance of the mission by throwing money at the problem. Building a replacement ICBM, spending billions to refurbish the Minuteman III ICBM, offering monetary incentives to attract and retain airmen to missile combat crews or creating a new service medal to reward missileers may seem like an easy –albeit expensive – fix. A more effective course might be to reassess the operational arrangements of our land based nuclear forces and reduce the number of ICBMs on high alert status by two-thirds.

Secretary Hagel, Secretary James, and senior brass at Strategic Command should address the systemic personnel problems they are in the process of identifying. Second, they should create a plan to leave one-third of the missiles at each base on high alert status, leaving the other missiles in an operational readiness in the order of hours or days, rather than minutes to launch. This would mean the missileers are taking fewer alert shifts a month. However, the extra time off alert shifts could reduce their stress on the job. It could give them more time for the fundamentals:  time to study their launch procedures, let them pass their proficiency tests without cheating and give them peace of mind in their career prospects knowing they will not be reprimanded for a 95 percent score on a proficiency test. 

In the meantime, the Air Force should provide overtime pay to the launch officers at Malmstrom AFB who are now working extra shifts to make up for their colleague's misconduct. Malmstrom has 196 launch officers who conduct about eight, 24-hour shifts a month overseeing the base’s 150 missiles. Now, 92 officers have been taken off alert duty for cheating or being complacent with their colleagues cheating. The remaining officers still on duty will take up more 24 hour shifts a month and they should be compensated generously for their overtime and integrity.

What would this mean for national defense? A posture of 150 high alert ICBMs – 50 at each base – combined with submarine launched nuclear missiles would be available for immediate launch under the president’s command. That is more than enough to deter a nuclear strike on the United States. Furthermore, the President could easily reinstate full alert for all ICBMs.

If the U.S. pursues this proposal, the Air Force would have to follow up with missileers. Fewer high-alert ICBMs and 24 hour shifts for missileers could change the culture of perfection that leads to undue stress and fear.  Missileers would still be held to an extraordinary standard in their work, but they would have more time to legitimately achieve that standard, which could eliminate the systemic personnel issues the 20th Air Force is facing. If missileers report reduced levels of stress and no instances of cheating or misconduct, then this should be the future posture of the ICBM force.

Tamerlani is the program assistant for Nuclear Disarmament at the Friends Committee on National Legislation.