The Biggest Threats to the U.S. Nuclear Missile Corps Are Boredom, Drugs, and Low Morale

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
April 14 2014 2:24 PM

Aiming High

Boredom. Drugs. Low Morale. The millennials of the U.S. nuclear missile corps are struggling to stay on high alert for a nuclear Armageddon.

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A spokesman at Malmstrom said the base had no records of incidents that old. But ridding the missile corps of all drug or alcohol abuse is clearly a steep challenge, given that between 14 and 20 percent of Americans in their 20s have told federal surveyors they recently used illicit drugs.

The Air Force’s rulebook states that drug dealing and the use of hallucinogens or any other drug that might cause “flashbacks” are grounds for permanent removal. But the service can be forgiving of those involved in drug and alcohol incidents that fall short of what it considers “abuse” and “dependency.” These personnel can be reinstated to critical nuclear weapons positions if they undergo rehabilitation and “display positive changes in job reliability and lifestyle.”

Drug or alcohol abuse, and other problematic behavior, is meant to be caught by the Defense Department’s Personnel Reliability Program, which screens and monitors all those with access to nuclear weapons and technical knowledge about them. Eighteen years after the incident described by Blair, nearly 4 percent of the nuclear workforce—or about 2,600 individuals—were typically “decertified” every year, for reasons that included “substance abuse, negligence, conviction of a serious offense, and poor physical or mental condition,” according to a 1992 report by the congressional watchdog agency then known as the General Accounting Office.

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“During our review … we found cases where individuals had been certified for nuclear-related positions despite evidence that they had been convicted for driving while intoxicated or they had admitted to pre-service drug use,” the GAO’s report stated. At one base visited, investigators found six of 54 personnel had pre-service drug use, mostly involving pot, because the rules at the time allowed precisely six “pre-service experimental” tokes per person.

Fifteen years later, when the nuclear weapons workforce was much smaller, annual decertifications had dropped to 1.83 percent, or about 310 personnel from all three services, according to a 2009 Defense Science Board report, including 140 in critical missile launch or maintenance positions. No details about why these workers were removed in 2007 have been made public, nor does the department publish decertification data from other years.

But last year, according to the Global Strike Command public affairs office, fewer than 30 officers were decertified from critical, nuclear weapons-related, bomber and missile launch or maintenance positions in the Air Force. Four of these were for drug-related problems. An additional 275 or so members of the command’s security force—roughly 4 percent—were also decertified that year, including 31 for drug-related problems.

Crushing the rules violators

The Air Force has tried to lend morale-boosting drama to the 50-year-old Minuteman launch jobs, with a colonel flogging the missileers in an email last April to act like they’re on a “go-to-war team” and a visiting general comparing them in a March speech to Babe Ruth or Ty Cobb, always ready to “knock one out of the park.”

It also asks its missile combat crews to spend about 40 days a year in a $9.7 million launch simulator at Vandenberg Air Force Base, where they are supposed to become acclimated to reading codes, turning keys, and flipping the switches that would bring death to millions.

But many missileers dislike the assignment, and chafe at being stuck underground for so much of their four-year tours, with little hope of rapid advancement or deployment to a more interesting location. Their chief opportunity, after the first two years, is to shift to the chair next to them, moving from deputy launch commander to commander.

What they most want to do is to sit “fewer alerts,” as recent Air Force focus groups have revealed.

In trying to create a happier workforce, the Air Force has known for years that it faces long odds: “The most difficult issue and the one with the most long-term implications is the widespread perception in both the Navy and Air Force that a nuclear forces career is not the highly promising opportunity of the past era,” an internal Pentagon study concluded in 1998.

By 2008, when the Defense Science Board surveyed more than 8,000 nuclear weapons personnel, the Air Force in particular had lower morale than the other services. Just 37 percent said they wanted to perform “nuclear deterrence related work” until they retired—compared with 62 and 83 percent of those surveyed in the Navy and Army, respectively—and fewer in the Air Force said they were willing to recommend their organization as a good place to work.

A confidential study by the RAND Corp. last year confirmed that behavioral and morale problems were more severe among missile force members than others within the Air Force, according to an Associated Press account. The court martial rate among missileers was more than double the overall Air Force rate in 2011 and 2012, as were rates of spousal abuse, although the Air Force says the rates have since declined.  

But the pale motivation and weak discipline of some missileers came more forcefully to the public’s attention last May, when a missile group commander at Minot Air Force Base wrote a lacerating email to his combat crew members that leaked to the Associated Press. Calling attention to low scores during recent inspections—including some marginal performances in the missile launch simulator—Lt. Col. Jay Folds wrote that “we’re discovering such rot in the crew force” that officers from other missile fields were being summoned “to come pull alerts at Minot while we fix ourselves.”

Folds demanded that his missileers “crush any rules violators,” including those “that do so on purpose.” He told them to turn off their televisions and improve their test performance, and to stop leaving missile silo blast doors open while they slept—a routine that launch capsule veterans say has long been commonplace, despite the obvious security risks.  

“No more questioning the rules and orders of the officers appointed over you!” Folds ordered in the email, according to a full copy obtained by the Center for Public Integrity, promising “consequences” for those who continued to “bad mouth” their work. “Gone is … the environment where we handed things to you on a silver platter because we thought that’s the way you take care of the crew force.” Seventeen combat crew officers were pulled from alert duty for two months.

In subsequent months the missile force’s problems—and public awareness of them—only worsened. When investigators probing the alleged drug ring seized the cellphones of suspects at Malmstrom, they discovered that dozens of lieutenants on missile combat crews had been exchanging questions and answers from their proficiency tests for nearly two years.

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