Nuclear missile officers’ jobs weigh heavy on them but not for the reasons you’d think.
On May 8 we posted about an article by Robert Burns of the Associated Press, in which he reported that the Air Force removed authority to control – and launch – nuclear missiles from 17 officers of the 91st Missile Wing in Minot, North Dakota after they were given a poor review for a series of mistakes.
In a follow-up piece, Burns asks Is There a Morale Crisis in the US Nuclear Force? He reports:
Inside the missile launch capsules, so called because of their pill-like shape, two officers stand watch, authorized to turn the keys enabled by secret launch codes if the presidential order ever comes. … Publicly, the Air Force insists that its missileers, as they are known within the service, are capable, trustworthy and committed. But Air Force Secretary Michael Donley also acknowledged in congressional testimony that he worries that talk of further shrinking the nation’s nuclear force is having a “corrosive effect” on his troops.
Gen. Mark Welsh, the Air Force chief of staff, said at the same congressional hearing that it’s understandable that young missile officers may be demoralized by the realization that theirs is a shrinking field.
“You say, ‘My goodness, there’s only three (missile wings in the entire Air Force). There’s no opportunity there,'” Welsh said. “That’s actually not the case, but that’s the view when you’re in one of those units.”
While “That’s actually not the case” might be true technically, any opportunity may just be a higher rank and more responsibility in a field that’s, nevertheless, “shrinking.” (Not fast enough to our liking!)
Though it may not be exactly what they mean, one could be forgiven for jumping to the conclusion that Secretary Donley and Gen. Welsh are recommending expanding our nuclear-weapons program to prevent missileers from growing discouraged and help them keep their heads in the game.
I know what you’re thinking: would that their jobs oppressed them because the fate of the world lies on whether or not they push a button. (Or toggle a series of switches or whatever.) But, hey, you’ve got to be pretty hard-hearted towards missileers and their sensitive psyches to deprive them of more nukes.
Burns reports on the real reason for their bleak career prospects (emphasis added).
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.”
While they wait for those transfers, maybe the Air Force can take a cue from “the missile launch capsules, so called because of their pill-like shape” and dole out Prozac to their missileers. It’s a lot cheaper and less risky than expanding our nuclear-weapons program to boost their morale.
Cross-posted from the Foreign Policy in Focus blog Focal Points.