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– Suzanne DiMaggio
Senior Fellow, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
April 15, 2019
Scandals Prompt Pentagon Nuclear Review
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Tom Z. Collina

In the wake of recent reports that some Air Force nuclear missile operators have been cheating on performance tests and failing to follow safety rules, the Defense Department announced Jan. 23 that it is launching a review of all U.S. nuclear forces, to be completed in three months.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said at a Jan. 24 press conference that he is “deeply concerned” about “the overall health and the professionalism and discipline of our strategic forces.”

At the Jan. 23 announcement event, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said that the review would look not just at the Air Force’s intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) force, the main source of the problems, but at the “whole nuclear force,” including the Air Force’s long-range bombers and the Navy’s strategic submarines.

All of the cheating incidents to date involving ICBM launch officers have occurred at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana, where 150 Minuteman III long-range missiles are based. In response to the cheating scandal, nearly half of the 190 missile officers at Malmstrom have been removed from duty, according to the Air Force.

Air Force officials said that, despite the cheating, there is no increased risk of an accidental or mistaken launch of a nuclear weapon. They cited the redundant safety procedures that are in place on U.S. nuclear weapons.

The U.S. ICBM force of 450 ICBMs is evenly divided among Malmstrom, F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming, and Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota. Each missile is armed with a nuclear warhead that has an explosive yield of 300 kilotons or more, the equivalent of about 20 Hiroshima bombs. The missiles are on high alert and ready to launch within minutes, independent experts say.

The Pentagon review’s first phase began when Hagel and Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, convened a Jan. 29 meeting of key nuclear security stakeholders in Washington to address personnel challenges in the nuclear force. The Pentagon will next develop an action plan, to be completed by April 30, to identify problems with the nuclear forces and ways to address them, Kirby said

Hagel also called for an independent review to undertake a broader examination of the nuclear force as it relates to personnel. This study, to be conducted by a “small number of experienced former officials,” Kirby said, will assess the quality of the action plan and is to be completed in 90 days.

In January, as the crisis was breaking, the new Air Force secretary, Deborah Lee James, visited all three ICBM missile bases. She has since focused on concerns about onerous testing requirements and has suggested that missileers should receive incentive pay, medals, and other recognition.

But a number of former missile officers and experts have said the job of a missileer has become a career dead end. “If the missile force can’t convince its people that what they are doing is really important, that it isn’t a military and strategic backwater and/or obsolete, no combination of programmatic incentives can really fix things,” Robert Goldich, a former defense policy specialist at the Congressional Research Service, was quoted as saying in a Feb. 11 Associated Press story.

In a Jan. 22 story in The New York Times, Brian Weeden, a former launch officer at Malmstrom, recalled that while on duty on Sept. 11, 2001, he stayed in his underground missile silo, watching the events unfold on television. “We couldn’t do anything,” he said. “The mantra had always been that the nuclear deterrent would keep America safe. But it didn’t. So I felt, not only did we fail to deter those attacks, but we couldn’t do anything about it after.”

In the past year, in addition to the cheating scandal, a general who oversaw nuclear weapons was dismissed for drunken behavior during an official trip to Moscow, officers assigned to Minuteman missiles were removed for violating safety rules, and missileers were found napping with the blast door open in violation of security regulations.

In recent years, the Air Force has been embarrassed by other incidents involving nuclear weapons. In 2007 a B-52 bomber was mistakenly flown across the United States with six nuclear-armed, air-launched cruise missiles on board. The year before, four ICBM fuses were mistakenly sent to Taiwan. In response, Defense Secretary Robert Gates fired Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne and Air Force Chief of Staff T. Michael Moseley. (See ACT, October 2007.)