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Missile Fields Scandalized from Top to Bottom

Over the last several years, a surprising number of high-ranking military officers have been investigated, punished or fired over conduct unbecoming, sexual harassment, sexual violence, retaliation against subordinates, recruiting fraud and financial improprieties. In 2014, a Pentagon study found that reports of rapes and sexual assaults in the military increased eight percent, and this came on the heels of a 50 percent increase in reported rapes and sexual assaults in 2013.

Simultaneously, nuclear weapons-related scandals have rocked the Air Force and the Navy, resulting in hundreds of demotions, firings, courts-martial and forced retirements.

Just to note a few:  Feb. 5, 2014, “Navy Opens Inquiry into Cheating in Reactor Training”; April 18, 2014, “Another Charge in Navy Bribe Case”; Nov. 14, 2014, “Pentagon Studies Reveal Major Nuclear Problems”; and Jan. 7, 2015, “California: Navy Commander Admits Taking Bribes.”

Officers among the 9,600 personnel in the Minuteman III missile system have been accused of and penalized for distributing illegal narcotics, violating safety and security rules, failing proficiency exercises, sleeping at the controls, cheating on exams, “burnout,” sexual assaults, spousal abuse, and even illegally flying nuclear-armed Cruise missiles across the country. Two Pentagon reports in 2014 urged then Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to allocate between $1-10 billion to quickly fix management and infrastructure in the nuclear weapons system.

An Air Force study obtained by the Associated Press in 2013 found that court-martial rates in the Minuteman missile fields in 2011 and 2012 were more than twice as high as in the overall Air Force. A lengthy article by Nina Burleigh in the June 18 Rolling Stone reports there are currently four courts-martial – for drug use, rape, assault, sexual assault on an unconscious person, and larceny – underway at the Minot Air Force Base alone. Minot is the only AFB in the country to host both B-52 Stratofortress bombers and Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles.

Missile field duty, whether in Minot, Wyoming or Montana, is understood by the personnel assigned to it as a career cul-de-sac, plagued with long hours of isolation and boredom, and haunted by high-level discussions of eliminating the missiles. The missileers’ jobs, and those of their colleagues and superior officers could be cancelled at any time, and even former Secretary Hagel signed a 2012 report recommending exactly that.

In 2014, the AP referred to, “a flagging sense of purpose,” a “stunning breakdowns in discipline, training, morale, security, leadership,” and “a decrepit Minuteman III missile force that few airmen want to join and even fewer view as a career-enhancing mission.” Even the Air Force Secretary in 2013, Michael Donley, said during congressional testimony that he was worried that talk of reducing the nuclear arsenal was having a “corrosive effect” on his troops.

One independent investigation of the string of public scandals declared that the crimes and misdemeanors were symptomatic of a deep-seated problem: “an unambiguous, dramatic and unacceptable decline in the Air Force’s commitment to perform the nuclear mission.”

Air Force chief of staff Gen. Mark Welsh said in 2013 that low morale among missileers is caused by the shrinking of the number of ICBMs. “You say, ‘My goodness, there’s only three [missile fields]. There’s no opportunity there’.” But former missile launch officer Bruce Blair, now a research scholar at Princeton University, told the press, “This dead-end career is not the result of shrinking nuclear arsenals, but rather because the Cold War ended decades ago …”

In an attempt to raise spirits, Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James, who directs 700,000 active-duty and reserve personnel, was reported Feb. 13, 2014 to be considering salary increases for the missileers, who make between $35,000 and $62,000 in base pay.

In the missile fields though, the numbing tedium of having had no mission for the 25 years since the end of the Cold War will not be relieved by a pay raise. Lacking an enemy to target—Minuteman missile warheads are reportedly aimed only at the open sea now, but can be quickly re-directed in a crisis—missile crews can’t be blamed for feeling useless. Overshadowed for promotion and commendations by the Air Force bombing campaigns and drone attacks in the terror wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, and unable to deter attacks against US military or civilian targets around the world, the missile crews’ “morale is abysmal,” according to Blair, and they are “suffering a deep malaise.”

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists put it this way: “Given the significant number of ‘expert’ studies that have appeared over the past five years suggesting that the ICBM leg of the nuclear triad should be deactivated, it is no wonder that morale has been a persistent challenge in the missile force …” You might say the missileers’ job is dead-ended in more ways than one.

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

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