Jeffrey Lewis

Death Wears Bunny Slippers

Why America's nuclear missileers are going soft.

The Air Force inspected the 91st Missile Wing — the unit responsible for 150 Minuteman III missiles near Minot, North Dakota — twice in a period of about a year. In February 2012, Air Force Global Strike Command conducted a "Nuclear Surety Inspection." Then, in March 2013, the Air Force inspector general conducted a "Consolidated Unit Inspection."

The 91st Missile Wing celebrated the February 2012 inspection with a Rough Rider-era Teddy Roosevelt impersonator screaming his head off like a bloody fool and firing a toy gun. (You can watch a clip here.) The 91st Missile Wing celebrated the March 2013 inspection with the commander screaming his head off like a bloody fool and firing 17 missile launch officers.

What a difference a year makes.

Although the 91st Missile Wing received an overall rating of "satisfactory" in both inspections, the rating in one area during the latter inspection caused concern. The Air Force inspector general judged the unit’s launch skills to be "marginal" — the equivalent to an academic D and sort of a problem for a unit whose primary task is to, well, launch nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missiles.

The poor rating prompted an investigation, after which the Air Force in April removed 17 officers from duty for 60 days. Action is pending against an additional launch officer who "had intentionally broken a safety rule in an unspecified act that could have compromised" launch codes.

This announcement suspending the 17 — "you will be bench warmer for at least 60 days" — was made in a barn-burner of an email from Lt. Col. Steven J. "Jay" Folds, deputy commander of the 91st Operations Group, which is the operational part of the missile wing. Folds used phrases like "crisis" and, most importantly, "rot" to describe the situation in the 91OG. Someone promptly shared Folds’s email with Robert Burns at AP, who published a story headlined, "Command cites ‘rot’ in nuke force."

On the surface, this story appears to be yet another black eye for the Air Force, following two high-profile embarrassments, in 2007 and 2008. In August 2007, a crew at Minot mistakenly loaded six nuclear-armed cruise missiles on a B-52 that departed for Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana. Then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates ordered an investigation by Maj. Gen. Douglas Raaburg, known as the Raaburg Report. The secretary of the Air Force also ordered a Blue Ribbon Review of Air Force Nuclear Policies and Procedures, headed by Maj. Gen. Polly Peyer. Then, in March 2008, the Air Force revealed that it had mistakenly sent four Minuteman nosecone assemblies to Taiwan back in August 2006. Secretary Gates ordered another investigation, this one headed by Navy Admiral Kirkland Donald, known as the Donald Report. Then, for good measure, Gates empaneled the blue-ribbon Secretary of Defense Task Force on DOD Nuclear Weapons Management, chaired by former Secretary of Defense and Energy James Schlesinger (Phase I, Phase II). And, since one can’t have a blue-ribbon anything involving strategic forces without feeding Larry Welch lunch, the Defense Science Board asked the former Air Force chief of staff to chair a Permanent Task Force on Nuclear Weapons Surety.

All told, these reports represent more than 1,000 pages of text that all boils down, more or less, to the idea that the Department of Defense, and especially the Air Force, are losing competence in the nuclear enterprise because no one takes deterrence seriously anymore. You could read any of the reports, but they typically contain sober warnings about the "loss of attention and focus, downgrading, dilution, and dispersal of officers and personnel" involved in the nuclear mission that reflects "a failure to appreciate the larger role of deterrence."

"Failure to appreciate" is one way of looking at it. One might, on the other hand, argue that the lack of appreciation stems from the fact that there isn’t anything to appreciate. Many of these weapons no longer have plausible military missions. The people handling them know that, and act accordingly. The problem isn’t that they don’t "get it." The problem is that they do.

It isn’t hard to understand the willful violation of safety procedures in order to, as Folds put it, avoid "inconveniencing yourselves." Why inconvenience yourself for a mission that seems absurd enough to warrant the motto: Death Wears Bunny Slippers? In such an environment, it doesn’t take much for things to go terribly wrong. The 2007 incident involving nuclear-armed cruise missiles occurred in the lead-up to a three-day weekend. You can practically hear Loverboy’s "Working for the Weekend" blaring in your imagination while the airmen load up the nukes by mistake.

The message that these incidents sends seems pretty clear to me: eliminate nuclear weapons that have no plausible military mission. We can’t fool the people assigned to them.

On the other hand, if you don’t like that message, there is a time-honored alternative: SHOOT THE MESSENGER.

Now, I should note there are some people who genuinely believe we can rekindle interest in the nuclear mission. I like to chide the Secretary of Defense Task Force for suggesting that the Air Force should focus less on criteria like "military cost effectiveness" — which apparently only denigrates the role of nuclear weapons — and more on the political and psychological benefits attributed to nuclear weapons. But the Secretary of Defense Task Force at least played it down the middle, stating that the need to rekindle interest in deterrence did not necessarily preclude further negotiated reductions in nuclear arsenals.

The president’s political opponents, on the other hand, are not so even-handed. Burns editorializes a little in his AP story, implicitly blaming Hagel for endorsing Global Zero — the disarmament group that is a popular bête noir of conservatives. "Underlying the Minot situation is a sense among some that the Air Force’s nuclear mission is a dying field, as the government considers further reducing the size of the U.S. arsenal…. Hagel himself, before he was defense secretary, signed a plan put forward a year ago by the private group Global Zero to eliminate the Air Force’s intercontinental ballistic missiles and eventually eliminate all nuclear weapons."

It’s a neat trick, really. Let’s blame everything on Global Zero for talking smack about our nuclear weapons!

This is the second hit job that Burns has performed on the Obama administration over the issue of nuclear reductions, presumably at the behest of the president’s Republican opponents on the Hill. In February 2012, Burns reported — falsely, I believe — that the president had directed the Pentagon to study a 300-warhead force. As far as I can learn,
Presidential Policy Directive 11, which is the document that ordered the Pentagon to develop plans to implement the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review, did no such thing — and one congressional "source" quoted in the article didn’t even have access to the document in question. (If you want the full story, I blogged about it at the time.) Just as I predicted, however, Representative Michael Turner and then-Senator Jon Kyl gleefully cited the story in speeches skewering the president. "Obviously this is going to create a huge stir in Congress," Kyl warned. "We will have a battle royal in Congress if the president moves forward with these kinds of plans."

Now Burns is intimating that Secretary Hagel’s support for Global Zero is germane to what’s gone wrong at Minot. The simple fact is that the first evidence of a serious problem in how the Air Force handles nuclear weapons and delivery systems dates to August 2006 — months before a little op-ed kicked off the latest round of disarmament talk. And the second incident in August 2007 occurred before the Nobel Prize was even a twinkle in then-Senator Obama’s eye. None of these are mentioned in the AP story. That would get in the way of the partisan spin.

Also not mentioned by Burns is that the Global Zero report in question did not call for the elimination of ICBMs — it called for the replacement of nuclear-armed ICBMs with conventional ones. The report, largely written by former Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff James Cartwright, argued that nuclear-armed ICBMs were basically useless in any scenario not involving Russia for a very simple reason: The Earth is round. Russia sits between us and pretty much every place else of interest. As a result, U.S. ICBMs must overfly Russia (and Russian early-warning systems) en route to any target worth mentioning. This is, obviously, not an encouraging thought. Here is the former commander of the U.S. Strategic Command saying plainly: I faced real operational constraints that would have prevented me from ever firing these missiles. Is it any wonder that crews at Minot let their launch skills atrophy?

The solution to this problem isn’t to pretend it doesn’t exist or to scream "91st number one!" louder and louder until the hippies and their dangerous ideas go away. The solution is to assign missileers to missions that matter. For Cartwright and Global Zero that means "a conventional-armed extended-range ICBM [based on] some variant of the Hypersonic Technology Vehicle-2…to provide a 1-hour global strike capability by 2022." Some disarmament group, right? Cartwright would co-locate these missiles with missile-defense sites in California, Alaska, and, yes, North Dakota. This capability, Cartwright argued, would provide a useful conventional capability against Iran or North Korea — threats that are more plausible than playing global thermonuclear war against the Russians.

Whatever you think of Cartwright’s suggestion to replace nuclear-armed ICBMs with conventional ones, it is a heck of a lot more likely to fix the problem than hiring some goofball to dress up as Teddy Roosevelt.

Although I do adore Teddy.

Jeffrey Lewis is director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program for the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. Twitter: @ArmsControlWonk

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