The U.S. Air Force recently admitted that in mid-2013 the base security troops of the 341st Missile Wing at an ICBM base in Montana failed a test where they had to go through the procedures required to deal with intruders taking possession of one of the nuclear warheads at the base. The 341st also failed a safety and security inspection, but the worst problem was seen as the inability to deal with losing a warhead to intruders. The air force would not provide details of how the security personnel failed, lest that give potential attackers useful information on base security. The officer in charge of the wing security forces was replaced and the new guy was ordered to get his troops ready to do it again and do it right. Unfortunately this was just one of many problems with the ICBM force.
Earlier in 2013 seventeen Minuteman launch officers were suspended from launch duty for two months so they could receive more training and new procedures developed and implemented to ensure that all regulations were being followed. These launch control officers were suspended because a surprise inspection revealed that they did not know all the details of their jobs that they were supposed to know. There was apparently a breakdown in training and leadership in their squadron (which controls 50 silos) and wing (which controls three squadrons). Air force leadership also believes that there is still an attitude problem among those who maintain and operate the ICBMs.
Launch officers are the ones who actually launch ICBMs. Two of them are in charge of every 10 silos, each containing an ICBM. These two officers work 24 hour shifts to monitor the readiness of those missiles and, if they receive orders, both have to agree to launch their missiles. Each pair of launch officers is in a separate command capsule (underground bunker) and five of these bunkers are in the same area, each with 10 nearby ICBM silos. Each pair of launch officers can, if need be, take over control of another launch control team’s missiles if that launch team’s bunker is destroyed or put out of action.
Problems continued to show up in 2014 when the air force concluded that the launch officers were so bored that fewer officers are willing to take the job and many of those assigned to “missileer” duties suffered low morale and that expressed itself in a higher rate of getting into trouble (twice the court martial rate of the rest of the air force) and domestic strife at home. It’s been this way for decades but has gotten worse since the Cold War ended in 1991 and the likelihood that the nukes would ever be used diminished considerably. With low morale came sloppiness and that started to get noticed after September 11, 2001.
Since the 1990s the air force has had growing problems with the personnel who handle and operate its nuclear weapons. Poor morale has led to sloppy performance. In 2013 the air force revealed that twice since 2011 launch control officers were punished for opening the heavily armored door to the launch capsule when only one of the launch officers was awake and present. In one case one of the launch officers was napping while the other opened the door to let an airman in to deliver a meal, while in the second case a launch officer opened the door and left it open to let a repair crew come and do some work. The other launch officer was sleeping and was not awakened while the door was opened. The purpose of requiring both launch officers to be awake and present when the capsule door is open is to be prepared in case the people being let in are not who they say they are and are an attempt to take control of the capsule and carry out an unauthorized launch. There are actually a lot of other security procedures and systems to prevent such a takeover. But for anyone to succeed, the easiest place to start is inside the command capsule.
Problems with training, leadership, and attitude among nuclear weapons operators was first noted in the 1990s, after the Cold War ended. The problems have been getting more and more attention in the last decade. Back in 2009, it became obvious that the situation was getting worse. That’s because twice that year the air force had to relieve the commander of a combat wing. One was a B-52 bomber wing while the other was a Minuteman ICBM wing. In the case of the ICBM wing two other senior officers were also relieved (one of them the guy in charge of the Wing Maintenance Squadron). In both cases the reason was "loss of confidence in his ability to command." That's milspeak for "too many little things have gone wrong and you are making your bosses nervous."
In the case of the dismissed missile Wing commander there had been two accidents with the large trailers that move the missiles. A vehicle accident is normally not grounds for removing a Wing commander, but in this case it was just one of many problems. Two missile wings also failed their Nuclear Safety Inspection. There were also incidents of misconduct by members of the Wing that lost its commander. Too many problems and the commander becomes a problem.
The continuing problems with air force missile units failing inspections and generally being sloppy have been around since the early 1990s. In 1992 SAC (Strategic Air Command), 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, discipline, and the myriad details for handling nukes. 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.
Among the many changes was one that now 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 (like satellites and communications, for example). Standards fell, efficiency slipped. In 2005, the missile crews lost their Missile Badge and had it replaced with a generic Space Command badge. SAC was now but a memory.
Then, in 2007, 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. In effect, six nukes went missing for several hours. 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.
One of the responses to the six missing nukes incident was to impose the dreaded “zero tolerance/no defects” policy. That approach was already being recognized as counterproductive but because nukes were involved “something had to be done” and zero tolerance was the easy (although worst) way to deal with it. Now the air force finds itself with a morale and performance problem that has gotten worse. Despite studies showing that commercial firms had found ways to solve similar problems the generals put in charge of the nuclear weapons have not, so far, accepted this as a solution and continued to insist that the problem is not as bad as it appears (it is) and that they have it under control (they don’t). The most senior air force management is somewhat aware of how this has gone off the rails but continue to have problems dealing with it.
By 2009 many nuclear weapons units were having problems with the two week long Nuclear Safety Inspections that take place every 18 months. Because of the embarrassing problems with nuclear weapons security over the previous three years, these inspections had become stricter. 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. All of the Missile Wings have been based 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 in 2009 just for specific inspection failures. The word from on-high was that the units handling nuclear weapons had to be over-the-top fanatic about nuclear safety and security. This was a switch from the then current practices. By 2009, the attitude was that if there was a pattern of failure, the commander gets relieved and life goes on. But this alone was not fixing the problems.
This persistent problem resulted in an attempt to bring back the old SAC (Strategic Air Command) attitude. This is one of those rare cases where it was recognized that the Good Old Days were better, or in this case, meaner, tougher, more effective, and safer. In 2009 that led to the establishment of the Global Strike Command (GSC). This outfit would, as SAC once did, control all air force nuclear weapons and delivery systems (ICBMs and heavy bombers). This came after 16 years of trying to do without SAC. Bring SAC back to life proved much more difficult than anyone thought.
The effort to revive the SAC era attitudes appears to have failed, but not for want of trying. In 2008, 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 had been used for decades, until 2005, when it was withdrawn and replaced by the generic "Space Wings" of the Space Command. SAC, it turned out, had been coming back quietly for quite some time, both for the bomber units as well as the missile ones. But the new SAC was not nearly as efficient as the original SAC.
As the recent failures indicate, not everyone has gotten with the program. Among the new SAC people there were many who were still “Space Command” at heart. This is attributed to the fact that with the end of the Cold War in 1991, the strategic nuclear weapons were no longer as crucial as they had been since the late 1940s. For decades the United States and Russia (as the Soviet Union) each had thousands of nuclear armed ballistic missiles (and a few hundred bombers) aimed at each other. That got the attention of people in SAC and encouraged everyone to concentrate. After 1991, the incentive was no longer there and it is still not there. But when you are handling nukes, the old SAC fanaticism is still the best way to go. But there was another problem. The air force has lost its appetite for improvising and coming up with practical solutions for any problems encountered. The officers and NCOs who staffed SAC in the early years were World War II veterans had understood the need to be quick and practical at detecting and fixing problems. They were replaced with a generation of Vietnam War vets but by the 1990s these were all gone and solutions tended to be more bureaucratic and “cover your ass” than practical. So while the SAC attitudes may be back, the mentality that made those hard-ass attitudes motivate people are not there.