The “Self-Inflicted Rot” in Nuclear Missile Crews

After a string of what the Secretary of the Air Force called “systemic” violations of nuclear weapons procedures, the service has moved to address what one internal email called “rot” in the nuclear missile corps.

Air Force higher-ups plan to fix problems involving low morale, poor discipline, alcohol and drug use, security lapses, leadership failures and widespread cheating, by offering bonus pay (like Navy nuclear war teams get), a “nuclear service” medal and additional modernization of the Minuteman III missiles. The Air Force maintains 450 Minuteman intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), which are spread across North Dakota, Montana and parts of Colorado, Wyoming and Nebraska. They are kept on “alert” status, ready to launch on a moment’s notice, by the crews suspected of the wrongdoing.

In August, the Air Force’s Global Strike Command — yes peaceful citizens, that’s what it’s called — and the 20th Air Force also launched an “officer swap” among the three ICBM bases — Minot in North Dakota, Malmstrom in Montana and FE Warren in Wyoming. “The idea is … to experience … the Force Improvement Program,” said Lt. Col. David Rickards, 91st Operations Group deputy commander at Minot, in a press release. “It’s always good to see how another team works,” the Lt. Col. said. Improved training and evaluation schemes are to start at Minot AFB, according to a media advisory by Minot’s Lt. Col. Rusty Williford.

In May 2013, 17 ICBM launch officers at Minot were removed from their missile duties because of a long list of discipline and security failures. At the time, the deputy operations commander at Minot complained in an internal email of “rot” in his ranks.

“I think a lot of the problems in the missile world have been self-inflicted,” Capt. Adam Ross, a 341st Operations Support Squadron missile crew combat crew instructor, said in a statement this August 14.

Subsequent scandals have involved gambling, alcoholism, drug use, cheating on missile control examinations and “burnout” among Air Force personnel. At Malmstrom AFB, two lieutenants are at the center of a drug investigation — still ongoing — in which they reportedly sent messages to 11 others in the ICBM crews about “specific, illegal drug use … [including] synthetic drugs, ecstasy, and amphetamines.” This according to a 268-page report published last February by Lt. General James M. Holmes, Vice Commander of the Air Force’s training command.

The shocking revelation of our nuclear war on drugs moved Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel to say in January this year, “We know that something is wrong.” Yes, and Mr. Dylan would say, “But you don’t know what it is, do you?”

Air Force Secretary Deborah L. James visited all three ICBM bases in January, and afterward she voiced her “profound disappointment” in the nuclear weapons controllers. The secretary went so far as to say the problems were “systemic,” not isolated, AP reported June 10.

In August Adm. Cecil Haney, the chief of Strategic Command at Omaha’s Offutt AFB, flatly contradicted Air Force Secretary James, his boss, when he told reporters at a conference in Omaha that “integrity lapses” occurred only among “a very small population.” More than 90 missile launch officers initially were removed from duty under suspicion of cheating on proficiency tests.

According to J. Jeffrey Smith writing in Slate last April, when investigators probing the alleged drug ring seized cell phones of the suspects at Malmstrom, they discovered that “dozens of lieutenants on missile combat crews” – the teams that sit underground with the missiles for days on end – “had been exchanging questions and answers from their proficiency tests for nearly two years.”

Rear Adm. John Kirby, a spokesman for Sec. of Defense Hagel, said in February that the Pentagon had launched two separate inquires to advise how best to address the string of scandalous conduct. But since commanders of a nuclear war system can’t see the forest for the trees, their investigations will not notice that the “rot” in the missile system is the mission itself: the deliberate, self-conscious participation in an ongoing conspiracy to kill millions of people.

John LaForge is co-director of Nukewatch—a nuclear watchdog and environmental justice group in Wisconsin.

John LaForge is a Co-director of Nukewatch, a peace and environmental justice group in Wisconsin, and edits its newsletter.