USAF Missileers: Ready, Willing and Able

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Air Force photo / SrA Javier Cruz Jr.

A pair of Air Force missileers keep watch over their Minuteman III missiles at F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming.

Last week, the Associated Press reported that 17 missile launch officers were “benched” from performing ICBM alert duty. In a scathing email, Lieut. Colonel Jay Folds blasted his troops for what he perceived as subpar performance within his ranks. A modest degree of media attention followed.

This prompted Bob Burns from the AP to question whether there was a “crisis” of morale in our nuclear ranks:

Bruce Blair, a former missile launch officer and now a national security scholar at Princeton University, said Friday that morale has dropped in part because the ICBM mission that originated in 1959, deterring the Soviet Union from attacking the U.S. or Europe, is less compelling than it was generations ago.

“This dead-end career is not the result of shrinking nuclear arsenals, but rather because the Cold War ended decades ago and because so few senior commander jobs exist within the missile specialty,” Blair said. “Most crews can’t wait to transfer out of missiles into faster-track careers such as space operations, but the Air Force doesn’t make it easy.”

Blair offered the same quote to what appears to be any journalist who would listen — here, here and here, for example — given the ubiquitous nature of this story.

Blair pulled nuclear alert several decades ago, and has advocated for the elimination of ICBMs.  I can’t speak to his experience or morale during the Cold War, but I can speak to mine.

Less than two years ago, I served as a Flight Commander in the 320th Missile Squadron at Wyoming‘s F.E. Warren Air Force Base, before leaving to pursue Ph.D. work at American University in Washington, D.C.

Speaking broadly, after a five-year missile assignment, I observed that most of our top troops opted to fight for competitive slots to “stay in nukes.” Follow-on assignments to U.S. Strategic Command, ICBM Weapons School, or the 576th Flight Test squadron (which tests unarmed Minuteman III missiles over the Pacific) only went to the best missileers with the best resumes.

The standard, not the exception, is an ICBM force that is well-maintained and exceptionally trained. The nuclear ethos is tough to understand and foreign to civilians. Missileers set high standards for themselves, unfairly high some would argue. They view “just passing” as the same as failing. That philosophy was on full display last week.

A “morale crisis” is easy to identify, irrespective of the service, specialty, or military expertise. John Noonan, another former missileer and spokesman for the House Armed Services Committee, tweeted:

Morale crisis = widespread dereliction of duties. Endemic apathy. Equipment in disrepair. Low readiness. None apply to ICBM force.

Some perspective is required. Minot Air Force Base took 17 missileers off alert and placed them in remedial retraining. Rounding up, that’s about 10% of the alert force put into retraining, after the Wing passed its inspection. The other two missile wings in Wyoming and Montana recently came off inspections where they were rated “excellent.” Each year the Air Force conducts simulated electronic and physical launches, and does so with a high success rate.

Speaking with colleagues still on alert, it does negatively impact their morale when academics like Bruce Blair serve as an unwanted and uninvited spokesman, scurrying to the press to tell them they don’t matter and are unimportant.

But a morale crisis? Hardly.

Serving in nukes means serving under the harsh glare of public opinion. If ICBMs are on the front page of The New York Times, it’s a safe bet something went wrong. But missileers are a hardy lot. It’s a tough duty, but given the — forgive the bad pun — explosion of missile and nuclear proliferation since 1991, notably in places like China, Iran, and North Korea, a worthy duty that the missile community takes seriously.

The men and women manning those three cold missile bases up north are a stoic group. They humbly accept the enormous responsibility entrusted to them. Both sides of the nuclear posture debate have tried to inject their politics into a single incident where an infinitesimal group of missileers failed to meet the rigorous standards that they, not us, set for themselves.

Given their six decades of uninterrupted nuclear watch over this country, Missileers, ICBM Maintainers, and Security Forces deserve better than that.

Matthew Vanderschuere is a former Minuteman III launch officer and flight commander for the 320th Missile Squadron. He is currently a doctoral student at American University, and a captain in the U.S. Air Force Reserve. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Air Force, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

9 comments
BobEichel
BobEichel

I too am a former missile operation officer.  Yes, at times morale goes down but then that is true in any occupation.  Yes, the assignments are in remote locations of the US.  Yes, you miss family events quite frequently.  Yes, it is a dead end job because there is no civilian equivalent.  And yes some employers look down on it.  However, I would not trade the 15 years I spent in Minuteman II and Titan II for anything.  It was good duty, and I met great people.  This article seems to be written by a person who ignores facts and leaves out the important facts.

afmike
afmike

Morale hasn't dropped because of the mission.  It's always been low because of location.  If missile bases were near cities such as San Diego, Miami or the like, I'm sure morale in the 13S community would be the highest in the AF.  Then again, maybe I'm just superficial. 

Sincerely,

Former Missileer

TimCerniglia
TimCerniglia

"Speaking broadly, after a five-year missile assignment, I observed that most of our top troops opted to fight for competitive slots to “stay in nukes.” Follow-on assignments to U.S. Strategic Command, ICBM Weapons School, or the 576th Flight Test squadron (which tests unarmed Minuteman III missiles over the Pacific) only went to the best missileers with the best resumes."

There's another word for the above:  Incestuous.  If you want a rotten culture, by all means create a cloistered community that possesses its own moral feedback loop.

TimCerniglia
TimCerniglia

Well Matt, you're welcome to your opinion, of course, but I also served as a commander at F.E. Warren.  I was an ACP-certified, HQ/OP crew commander.  What I saw in my tour was preferential treatment given to lower-ranking, less qualified officers.  I saw officers lying about reports, and trying to undermine each other to win coveted "staff" jobs.  I personally witnessed EWO instructors giving a "pass" to some missileers while others were punished for failing EWO tests (the test other people were allowed to pass).  At the time, Stan/Eval officers were permitted to take their tests behind closed doors creating huge opportunities for unethical behavior.  I saw those same Stan/Eval officers acting as if they were entitled to "red carpet" treatment on the rare occasions when they pulled alerts.  I saw absurd PRP rules that disallowed basic medications, but I could go to the Class VI,  buy a bottle of Vodka and drink it to the bottom and not lose my status.  During one missile test in the field, when I pointed out that a particular test procedure would crash the network, I was told to sit down and  shut up.  Two days later, when the test was run, the network crashed and contact was lost with hundreds of warheads.  It took many, many hours to restore weapon system safety, and a lot of people got embarrassed   They sent me out to get it right, which we did, a week or two later.  Stan/Eval tried to run the same procedure again, but I was able to work with the test director to get the one message we all needed to avoid a crash.  It arrived 1 minute before the test, and all went fine.  Just absolute, total arrogance pervades many of the staff-level positions in the Wings.  

At Tango, I would have silos in other squads call me to report various status, and they would flat out lie to me about their comms.  I could see what was and was not done from my position at the ACP, but if I called them on it, I was the bad guy.  In the last few weeks of my alerts, we had personnel roll an SUV for disobeying orders about speed limits, and watched a friend self-immolate his career by losing his briefcase full of code books at the Shopette.  I found out from a good friend that many of the deputies didn't like pulling alerts with me because I actually required them to do their jobs.  How about that?  Many liked it, because I took my job seriously, but what I learned was that doing the job properly was the last thing most missileers wanted to do.  "Field Procedures" I believe was the term for how things really get done under ground.

When everything is a rule, nothing is.  And that is where many of these problems come from.  The missile culture is rotten to the core, and as long as there are people out there trying to Rah-Rah the crew force, nothing is going to change.

8bigman22
8bigman22

There are more things that need to be looked at here besides the 17 missileers.  What about the LTC that called them out in his scathing email?  Is he attempting to draw attention to himself and get his name known by everyone in the missile community?  Well, if there was anyone that didn't know who he was, they do now.  Also, he was the deputy (2nd in charge).  If the situation was as bad as he claims, why didn't his boss step up and call out the missileers?  The comments made by this LTC were a little over the top in my opinion.  I know this LTC and he was an elite operator during his tour.  However, he should ask himself if this is an issue that could have been corrected without all this attention?  Furthermore, now that you have called out your troops, what are you going to do?  Keep beating them down or be a part of resolving the situation by building these troops into operators and the officers they should be?  Morale was always low because nobody got attention until it was negative.  True leaders handle the situation in-house (if possible) and set the example by building these young troops into future leaders.  

SwiftrightRight
SwiftrightRight

Its time to look at just doing away with the land based missile leg of the triad.

Do we really need all those targets in the middle of the heartland when we could just depend on SSBNs and bombers? This isent 1968, Sea launched missiles are nearly as accurate and certainly accurate enough to place an atomic weapon. Furthermore Chinese and Russian missiles are accurate enough to make short work of any conceivable silo design. 

8bigman22
8bigman22

@SwiftrightRight The only problem with relying on SLBMs and Bombers is that they are not ready at a moments notice.  Do you know who might be able to respond to an unannounced launch against us?  How long it would take to launch missiles of our own?  If we have to rely on SLBMs and Bombers, we would not be able to respond before targets in the US were hit.  

DHMazur
DHMazur

It would help if Air Force leadership didn't make threats about crew motivation and readiness in order to score political points, win budget battles, or create excuses for problems.  In the same AP article, the AF Secretary and Chief of Staff suggest that missile specialists can't or won't do their jobs well if we reduce our reliance on nuclear retaliation.  These are highly unprofessional statements, but no one challenges them.


A former Air Force officer and author of "A More Perfect Military: How the Constitution Can Make Our Military Stronger"

Serenity
Serenity

Another one who drunk the Kool Aid


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