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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The tests, administered every month, covered the handling of codes, missile operations, and responding to “emergency war orders”—the authority to unleash nuclear destruction.  Ten officers had texted or received a classified test answer without safeguards. They did so, the Holmes report said, because they needed perfect scores to be promoted to other, aboveground Air Force jobs.

Senior Air Force officers responded in March by ordering nine of that base’s group and squadron leaders—all colonels and lieutenant colonels—removed from alert duties, on the grounds that they were not monitoring their crews sufficiently to detect the cheating. The overall commander of Malmstrom’s missile wing resigned.

As for Folds, a year after berating his missile crews he is no longer in his post, having accepted an academic fellowship at Harvard University. Meanwhile, the Air Force has decided a gentler management approach is better-suited to keeping the millennials happy. “Occasionally, we’re going to … [swing] and miss, and I’m OK with that,” Wilson, the Global Strike Command head, startlingly told Malmstrom’s missileers during a Feb. 26 visit. “I’m good with striking out—that’s what makes us better. It is OK to fail.”

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The Air Force also decided to refurbish more launch control centers, revise some of its testing materials, and try to create more attractive career paths. The Personnel Reliability Program has been overhauled to strip away some higher-level reporting requirements and push oversight and decision-making down to the local commands.

In taking a wider view of the test cheating problem, Holmes wrote that he was following the “Reason Model of Human Error.” That’s a slightly garbled name for the theory propounded in 1990 by University of Manchester social psychologist James T. Reason that complex systems—particularly those with highly perfected mechanical devices at their heart—can fail, sometimes catastrophically, due to mistakes made by the executives who create and manage them.

Reason’s insights from studying air traffic controllers, hospitals, and nuclear power plants prompted him to be hired by railways and airlines in an effort to anticipate when poor supervisory practices—including excessive corner-cutting, undue budget reductions, and the setting of unrealistic performance expectations—might culminate in unsafe acts. One of his most famous presentations included a series of Swiss cheese slices, representing checks and safeguards, with the holes unexpectedly lined up so that a catastrophe could still occur.

But while the Air Force has embraced this theory in name, its leadership still rejects any suggestion that its complex missile system has any inherent flaws, that cheating or other problems are widespread at the two other missile bases, or that workers’ shortcomings at Malmstrom were well-known up the chain of command. “There was a few, handful of people that were at the crux of this problem,” Wilson, head of the Global Strike Command, told reporters on March 27, mentioning four in particular, three of whom he said were involved with drugs.

The missile wing commander who resigned, Col. Robert W. Stanly II, struck a similar theme in a grumpy resignation note saying “just one solitary airman” could have let any higher-ups know of the rule-breaking, so they could have leapt into action. He said the “extraordinary selfish actions of officers entrusted with the most powerful weapon system ever devised” had kept everything hidden.

“Really unhappy” missileers

A somewhat different account is buried in the bowels of the Holmes report. It says that focus groups and a survey at Malmstrom indicated that many of those who passed through the training at Vandenberg were “conditioned” to expect test coaching at the missile bases. Many crew members believed test sharing was widespread and that the rewards justified the risks. Sixty percent said their squadron leaders knew about it.

“Cheating has been going on for years; however, leadership pretends that the cheating is not happening,” said one of the focus group participants. “You can talk yourself into doing things that you wouldn’t ordinarily do because you see a culture of compromises and a leadership that’s aware of what’s going on and tolerates it,” said another.

After the embarrassing RAND Corp. report on low morale last year, the commander who oversaw the entire 450-missile Minuteman III force, Maj. Gen. Michael J. Carey, told the Associated Press that morale at Minot is “not bad” and that missileers there are “not unhappy.” But the following month, when Carey joined seven other American officials on an official trip to Moscow, he told them that “his group had the worst morale” and the Air Force’s leadership “wasn’t supporting him,” according to an October 2013 report by the service’s inspector general.

“They’ve done a study and saw that his … you know, the missile bases or everyone is really unhappy,” one of the Americans on the trip quoted him as saying. “He is trying to make it better and leadership is not helping out and not listening to him.”

It’s true Air Force leaders are not listening to Carey today. He was removed from his post after the service’s inspectors concluded he engaged in inappropriate behavior on the trip besides publicly savaging his Air Force superiors.

Specifically, witnesses said he drank excessively, including from an open vodka bottle handed to him by his hosts; he insistently demanded that the band at a Mexican restaurant in the Russian capital let him sing or play the guitar onstage; and he repeatedly sat or walked with Russians instead of members of his own group, including several attractive women who showed up at two restaurants and kissed him on the cheek.

According to the report, he also spent most of an evening talking with the cigar shop saleswoman at the Moscow Marriott hotel who he later recalled “was asking questions about physics and optics.” He said he recalled thinking, “Dude, this normally doesn’t happen.”

The lesson appears to be that there’s no immunity, among the missileers at various ranks, from poor judgment and low spirits while pursuing their marginalized profession.

Senior reporter Douglas Birch contributed to this article.

This story was published by the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit, independent investigative news outlet. For more of its stories on this topic go to publicintegrity.org.

R. Jeffrey Smith is the managing editor for national security at the Center for Public Integrity.

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