Strategic Weapons: Scary Becomes Fashionable Again

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December 18,2008: For the second time the last two months, one of the U.S. Air Forces Missile Wings has flunked a nuclear weapons safety inspection. This month it was the 90th Missile Wing at Warren Air Force Base, Wyoming. Last month it was the 341st Missile Wing at Malmstrom Air Force Base, Montana. Each of these wings controls a third of the 450 American Minuteman III ICBMs.

These two week long inspections take place every 18 months. Because of  the embarrassing problems with nuclear weapons security over the last two years, these inspections have become more strict. Since no one was removed from their jobs at the 341st or the 90th as a result of the inspection results, it appears that this was all meant to get everyone to tighten up and go by the book. Scary inspections have become fashionable again, and commanders who don't get with the program are headed for early retirement.

These inspections are not unique or a surprise. Both of these units have been where they are for over four decades. The word comes down the chain of command about what is expected, and if anyone screws up, officers (or, more rarely, NCOs) are relieved and careers are ruined. Heads did not roll for these inspection failures. These failures were for instructional purposes only. The word from on-high is that the units handling nuclear weapons have to be over-the-top fanatic about nuclear safety and security. This is a switch from recent practices.

This heralds the return of the old SAC (Strategic Air Command) attitude. The U.S. Air Force is in the process of trying to revive SAC. This is one of those rare cases where it is recognized that the Good Old Days were better. Or, in this case, meaner, tougher, more effective and safer. The new Global Strike Command (GSC) will, as SAC once did, control all air force nuclear weapons and delivery systems (ICBMs and heavy bombers.) This comes sixteen years of trying to do without SAC.

In 1992, SAC, which had control of air force nuclear bombers and missiles since 1946, was disbanded and the ICBMs, and their crews, were transferred to the new Space Command. SAC had long been the butt of many jokes, for being uptight and fanatical about security and discipline. Everyone tolerated this because, after all, SAC had charge of all those nukes, heavy bombers and ICBMs. When Space Command took over, they eased up on the tight discipline and strictness about procedure that had been the hallmark of SAC for decades. The old timers complained, but many of the young troops liked the new, looser, attitudes.

Officers operating the ICBMs were no longer career "missileers", but Space Command people. Time that used to be spent on studying nuclear weapons security and missile maintenance issues, was now devoted to subjects of more concern to Space Command (satellites and communications, for example). Standards fell, efficiency slipped. Then in 2005, the missile crews lost their Missile Badge, and had it replaced with a generic Space Command badge. Then, a year ago, there was much angst when it was discovered that six nuclear cruise missiles had accidentally been mounted on a B-52 and flown halfway across the country. How could this happen? The old timers knew. While many of these older officers and NCOs were pleased when SAC went away early in their careers, they knew that it was that act, and the subsequent "loosening up", that led to the lax attitudes that put those six nukes on that B-52. All this was part of a major, post-Cold War reorganization of the USAF. It was the beginning of the end of a decades old tradition of handling nuclear weapons safely and securely.

Last Summer, the air force brass reinstated the Missile Badge, for any missile crew member who belonged to a missile crew that was certified CMR (passed some strenuous inspections to be declared Combat Mission Ready). The badge was used for decades, until 2005, when it was withdrawn and replaced by the generic "Space Wings" of the USAF Space Command, which took control of the ICBMs in 1993. SAC, it turns out, has been coming back quietly for quite some time.

 


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