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

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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.

U.S. Air Force Capt. Daniel Moore, front, and Capt. Kyle Heiderich, back, check a launch control center.
U.S. Air Force Capt. Daniel Moore, front, and Capt. Kyle Heiderich, back, check a launch control center.

Photo courtesy SSgt. Jonathan Snyder/Air Force Global Strike Command

Every day 90 uniformed men and women in their mid-20s ride elevators 40 to 60 feet below remote fields in Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, North Dakota, and Nebraska in rote preparation for improbable nuclear Armageddon.

They spend some of their 24-hour alerts seated in front of steel Minuteman III missile launch control panels mounted on shock absorbers, with toggle switches capable of hurling 10 to 50 nuclear warheads—each with 20 times the explosive force of the Hiroshima bomb—to the other side of the globe, at speeds of 15,000 mph.

But their day-to-day enemy, for decades, has not so much been another superpower, but the unremitting boredom of an isolated posting that demands extreme vigilance, while also requiring virtually no activity, according to accounts by missileers and a new internal review of their work.

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That understandable boredom, when paired with the military’s sky-high expectations for their workplace performance, has pushed some of them to use drugs, others to break the rules, and still more to look for any way out.

The millennials who populate this force can watch television, read, study, or sleep in their cramped, often damp quarters. But their checklist routines are typically unvarying, and their moment-to-moment responsibilities are few, and the temperature underground—like the policy requiring their presence—is unnervingly stuck in the mid-60s.

Referring implicitly to the officers’ ability to wreak almost unimaginable destruction on foreign populations, Col. Robert Vercher, the commander of a missile wing at North Dakota’s Minot Air Force Base, told the Air Force’s news service in February that “there is no other Air Force unit, other than our sister ICBM wings, where we put this much responsibility on very junior Airmen.”

Their official job criteria require that they have a “positive attitude toward nuclear weapons duty.” Those who don’t feel up to detonating such warheads are generally referred either to chaplains, legal counsels, or “mental health clinicians,” the Air Force says, to try and set them straight. Moreover, until recently, the Air Force’s policy dogma for the force—dating at least from a 2007 episode in which the command lost track of six nuclear warheads fitted atop cruise missiles for a day—is that mistakes cannot be made.

“Perfection is the expectation” for “America’s frontline missile operators,” an article from the Air Education and Training Command stated in late 2011. “In what you do every day, there is no room for error, none,” Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel reiterated during a visit to Wyoming’s F.E. Warren Air Force Base three months ago.

But now—when the national nightmare typically involves a terrorist’s smuggled bomb on the subway rather than another nation’s missile attack over the North Pole—even the Air Force admits that motivating these young officers to fulfill the service’s standard of perfection in their ICBM knowledge and skills is essentially an unachievable goal.

Lt. Gen. James M. Holmes, a former fighter pilot who is now vice commander of the Air Force’s training command, acknowledged as much in a revealing 268-page report he completed in February about the grim life of the missileers. Senior Air Force leaders, he said, had repeatedly ordered a “zero defect” nuclear culture that is “unrealistic and unobtainable.” The consequence of making such demands was not to improve performance but to worsen morale and promote dishonesty, the report concluded.

“Leadership’s focus on perfection led commanders to micromanage their people … imposing an unrelenting testing and inspections [regime] with the goal of eliminating all human error,” Lt. Gen. Stephen Wilson, commander of the Air Force’s Global Strike Command, said as he endorsed the Holmes report, which was released in late March. “This approach is unrealistic.”

The Air Force is now planning to ask for less perfection from its 9,600-member missile corps, a result that is practical, or perhaps inevitable, given the job’s inherent limitations, even if it is also a disquieting standard for a group with its fingers on such consequential buttons. 

Ecstasy and amphetamines

Holmes’ report was sparked by an Air Force probe of drug dealing by two lieutenants in contact with the nuclear missile workforce, which began last August and quickly blossomed into an investigation of widespread cheating on the missileers’ proficiency tests at the Malmstrom Air Force Base, a Montana facility with 150 nuclear-tipped Minuteman III missiles.  

The drug-dealing probe—which may be the most alarming aspect of the current tumult—remains open, and the Air Force has said little about it. But the two officers at its center, both in administrative jobs, allegedly sent messages to 11 others about “specific, illegal drug use … [including] synthetic drugs, ecstasy, and amphetamines,” according to the Holmes report.

Two of those who received these messages about drugs at Malmstrom were combat crew members—those with responsibility for actually launching Minuteman missiles, according to a spokeswoman for the Global Strike Command that oversees the missile force. Another recipient was a missile combat crew member at Warren, which has another 150 Minuteman IIIs.

The Defense Department likes absolutes, at least in its policies. It has a stated zero tolerance for drug abuse and mandates frequent urine testing for its nuclear weapons officers. But drug use of some kind has a long history in the nuclear missile corps, according to Bruce Blair, a former deputy missile combat crew commander who is now a research scholar at Princeton University and advocates eliminating the Minuteman force.

During his four years at Malmstrom in the early 1970s, Blair recalled recently, he sometimes passed the time by eavesdropping on radio chatter by security guards on patrol. He discovered their discussions were often about where to find bags of pot deliberately stashed near missile silos. On his final day on alert in a launch capsule in 1974, Blair added, security officers with dogs swept through the command quarters overhead and snagged the cook, the security chief, and the facility manager.

“Everybody [topside] was high,” Blair said. “They were all relieved of duty.”

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.

“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.

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.”

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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