Fine Print: For Air Force officers, the long wait for a nuclear attack can be a bore

Walter Pincus
Reporter February 4

It’s not stress, drugs or cheating on proficiency tests that’s the problem for about 550 Air Force officers who serve 24-hour shifts in capsules 60 feet underground. They’re waiting — as their predecessors have done for 50 years — to launch nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles.

The real cause of their difficulties is their “mission”: to be ready to turn keys and press buttons on a moment’s notice in response to an attack that no one really expects will ever come.

Walter Pincus reports on intelligence, defense and foreign policy for The Washingon Post. He first came to the paper in 1966 and has covered numerous subjects, including nuclear weapons and arms control, politics and congressional investigations. He was among Post reporters awarded the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for national reporting. View Archive

These young “pocket rocket” officers joined the Air Force to serve their country and ended up being assigned to a four-year military backwater where they feel underappreciated and bored.

They’re told what they’re doing is vital and necessary, although their own service treats them as second-rate colleagues while it dotes on and promotes those piloting aircraft.

Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James noted the problem Thursday after a tour of ICBM bases when she said of Air Force missileers: “Do they view this as a career field that has promise and where they can see a path to advancement and the top? I’m not sure they view it that way today.”

Consider the relatively new Air Force second lieutenant who after training takes up his or her assignment as a launch control officer at F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming, Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana or Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota. Each manages 150 Minuteman III ICBMs.

Warren’s 150 missiles are in separate fenced-in silos spread over 9,600 square miles of the plains of Colorado, Nebraska and Wyoming. Within that same area are 15 fenced and guarded above-ground missile alert facilities, each controlling 10 missiles.

Alert facilities are like a miniature operating base with their own electrical and water supply, along with a facility manager, a security controller and usually a six-person security force. Because most alert facility personnel — other than the launch crews — work four days at a time, there is a kitchen and chef, beds, TVs and computers, plus reading materials and work-out equipment at each facility.

Buried 60 to 100 feet beneath each alert facility — and connected by elevators — are the launch control centers where the two-officer launch crews control 10 ICBMs 24 hours a day.

The launch crew officers go on alert eight times a month. At Warren, the 24-hour alert day begins early morning at squadron headquarters at the air base proper. A briefing covers expected maintenance for any of the 10 missiles, any potential security issues involving missile fields, weather and road conditions, and supplies needed at the alert facility, which can be three hours away by vehicle.

At the alert facility, the crew goes through security checks and then descends to the capsule. There are more security checks before the crew being relieved opens the blast-resistant door. Then there’s nearly an hour of changeover work that includes accounting for all classified materials and signing for custody of the 10 missiles.

The next 24 hours involve equipment inspections, readiness and status tests of the 10 missiles, which can be miles away. They monitor real-world and exercise action messages. They keep in touch with other launch centers and the security and maintenance teams working in their areas.

During down times, one officer rests while the other monitors the systems. The capsule has a toilet, a television, a bed, a microwave and a refrigerator.

When their 24 hours are over, they debrief their replacements and ride back to their home base. The alert, which starts on the morning of one day, usually ends 30 to 40 hours later on the afternoon of the next day. It’s generally followed by days of training, testing or time on a launch control simulator.

The Cold War ended more than 20 years ago. Then-President George H.W. Bush took the B-52s and B-1 long-range strategic bombers off nuclear alert.

Why do we still keep 90 Air Force officers in capsules 24 hours a day babysitting all 450 ICBMs ready to go when there is no immediate danger?

Russia is the only major nuclear threat to our missiles, and because of the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, there are regular and unannounced U.S. inspections of Moscow’s ICBMs all the time, making a surprise first strike attack against the United States inconceivable.

Given today’s threats in the Middle East and South Asia, it’s no surprise that attention to nuclear weapons and the alert ICBM force has deteriorated.

In August 2007, the scandal was a B-52 flying cross-country with six nuclear-armed air-launched cruise missiles, but that was a maintenance problem. A year later, it was four ICBM warheads mistakenly sent to Taiwan. Then-Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates fired Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne and Air Force Chief of Staff T. Michael Moseley.

On Jan. 9, the same day two missile officers were suspended for alleged drug violations, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel went into one of the launch control centers in his home state of Nebraska during a visit to Warren Air Force Base. In the capsule he heard about problems from launch officers.

Maybe the “systemic” and “cultural” issues that Hagel discussed Wednesday with top nuclear weapons officers will lead to reducing the number of alert ICBMs.

How about keeping only 90 Minuteman III on alert, rotating launch officers to Vandenberg Air Force Base, where they actually launch ICBMs in test operations? Why not make this a duty for Air Force Reserves or Air National Guardsmen who already live in those areas?

What won’t solve the problem is what’s being considered: giving missileers a medal. Or what’s being done: sending an Air Force public affairs team on a 28-day assignment to put out tweets, videos and stories to show what its Friday news release said is “the dedication the command’s airmen have in accomplishing their mission.”

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