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.