Stuck in a Job at the End of the World

Very little sympathy is felt for Air Force personnel assigned to fire nuclear missiles that could end all life on the planet. But their grim, boring and existentially absurd job has eroded staff morale so much that their collapsing competence has added to the world’s risk, explains John LaForge.

By John LaForge

Some of the Air Force’s self-styled nuclear “missileers” — sitting at launch controls in Minot, North Dakota — recently earned a “D” on their intercontinental ballistic missile firing (ICBM) skills. More than 10 percent of the Minot Air Force Base’s 91st “Missile Wing” was declared incompetent and was stripped of launch-duty clearances.

The Air Force removed 17 of Minot’s 150 missile launch officers in April, over what commander Lt. Col. Jay Folds called “such rot” that, according to The AP on May 8, “even the willful violation of safety rules — including a possible compromise of launch codes — was tolerated.”

Peacekeeper missile after silo launch. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Air Force commanders told The AP they were concerned about an “attitude problem” among the ultimate bomb scare command. The Air Forces’ two-person crews work three-day shifts in underground Launch Control Centers and are supposed to be constantly at-the-ready to fire the 10 Minuteman IIIs under their control. Minot AFB is in charge of 150 ICBMs, 15 “flights” of 10 missiles each, with one launch control center for each flight.

Another 150 are on alert in Wyoming and 150 more out in Montana. All 450 of the relics are armed with a 300-kiloton “W-87” warhead. Three-hundred kilotons is a magnitude equal to 18 times the destruction that incinerated Hiroshima in 1945 killing 140,000 people.

The Air Force put on its dress uniform in the face of the scandal. In May it announced it would retrain the incompetent nuclear triggermen and the commanders asserted to Congress that its H-bombs were secure.

Gen. Mark Welsh, the service’s top general, told the Washington Post — with deliberate irony one hopes — that Air Force officers sense that the land-based missile system “is a dying field.” And it’s a fact that everyone from President Barack Obama to the War Resisters League has called for the Bomb’s abolition. Gen. Welsh admitted to the press that there are “a limited command positions to which missile launch officers can aspire.”

Being stuck in dead-ended Air Force careers and posted in the wilderness of central North Dakota, Minot’s Cold War throw-backs — who call themselves “Roughriders” and “Vulgar Vultures” on their website — are trained to fire Minuteman III ballistic missiles at the sea (they can be re-programmed but are targeted on the oceans for “safety”) and, day after wind-swept prairie day, have absolutely no military function or purpose whatsoever.

It’s hardly surprising that their minds drift. Since they’re prepared to commit the bloodiest, most nightmarish crime in human history or imagination, the missileer’s principal pre-occupation must be to think about something else, anything else. Many work on graduate degrees. One launch control center I visited in December 1987 was decorated with Christmas lights.

The inevitable if not impending elimination of their useless rockets has to depress what’s left of the launch teams’ esprit de corps. Even their civilian commander, Pentagon chief Chuck Hagel, has signed onto a call by the group Global Zero to eliminate all the ICBMs and to eventually discard all nuclear weapons.

Of course Minot AFB has been demoralized by more than the nuclear war flunky scandal. In August 2007, three of its Colonels, a Lt. Colonel and dozens of low-level personnel were demoted or sacked after they allowed the fantastically dangerous loading and cross-country air transport of six nuclear-armed Cruise missiles from Minot to Barksdale AFB in Louisiana. Even if that astonishing action was covertly orchestrated by Vice President Dick Cheney for an attack on Iran that never materialized, the highly implausible but official cover story of mismanagement, rule-breaking and recklessness was an international humiliation for Minot.

That same year, Cold War super-hawks Sam Nunn, George Shultz, William Perry and Henry Kissinger publicly declared their support of a “world free of nuclear weapons.” These life-long nuclear arsenal defenders had finally joined Reagan Administration adviser Paul Nitze and Strategic Air Command leader Gen. George Lee Butler in calling the arsenal worse than useless.

Even Sen. Carl Levin, D-Michigan — who last week defended the Pentagon’s usurpation of authority to attack anywhere on Earth for the next 20 years — said about the nuclear arsenal last June, “The more weapons that exist out there, the less secure we are rather than the more secure we are.” [“Senator Urges Bigger Cuts to Nuclear Arsenal,” New York Times, June 15, 2012]

No wonder the Air Force missileers are lackadaisical about the apocalypse. There’s just no future in it.

John LaForge, syndicated by PeaceVoice, edits the Nukewatch quarterly newsletter.

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4 comments on “Stuck in a Job at the End of the World

  1. elmerfudzie on said:

    This article serves as a warning to reduce all ICBM and IRBM launch sites by ninety percent. We must return to the old style delivery of atomic weapons by bomber squadrons. Don’t laugh, such as the B-83 series. The B-52′s must continue to fly, kept in full readiness at all times and with an aggressive modifications and maintenance program. This should be done even if it translates into taking a few B-52′s out of mothballs (bone yard Davis AFB near Tucson). I believe a thousand of them could be mustered and pieced together from what we already have. The practice of keeping it all in a closed shop, from father to son assures pilot excellence. Once launched, missiles cannot be recalled and for this reason, I’m strongly opposed to atomic warfare by any other means but gravity bombing. The strategic subs, Trident D-5′s, will serve only as the final Götterdämmerung in the event that every diplomatic maneuver s and or limited nuclear warfare by aircraft fail to resolve the crisis.

  2. Paul G. on said:

    One other aspect that the article fails to mention is that the sites are vulnerable to a nuclear strike as their position, unlike submarines, are well known. For that reason there is a temptation to launch them before a potential incoming strike can be perfectly verified; as the lead time between radar picking up a suspected hostile missile launch, and the potential arrival is frightfully short.

    Of course this begs the question: if your are basically going to ruin the planet why bother retaliating at all. France a long time ago decided its nuclear policy would include just enough missiles to create what strategists call “unacceptable losses” and leave it at that. The US has more than enough to demolish the world, what the hell for? Get rid of most of the damn things.

    Another problem is these large yield weapons are strategically useless. They do such broad damage that they can not be used to take out selected military targets-they are pure mass slaughter.

    The comment that Cheney may have had a plan to nuke Iran gives much weight to reducing the nuclear stockpile. Every election now, we come close to electing someone with questionable decision making perspective; and sometime we do.

  3. elmerfudzie on said:

    Response to Paul G. In my mind, the B-52s will best serve to strike soft targets, thereby preserving the military posture and at the same time the sovereignty of that country. By soft targets I mean, manufacturing, government and or brain trust centers. Big gravity bombs are not essential in this scenario only that the initial nuclear encounter will be minimal and hopefully allow last minute diplomacy or at least, reduce the likelihood of a full retaliatory response by the enemy. Hitting soft targets ensures the preservation of their military self defense system and eventually applying it towards reestablishing internal civil order.

  4. Carlton Meyer on said:

    Another reason to scrap these should appeal to American hardliners too. Here is my G2mil blog comment.

    Sep 18, 2012 – Look at the Map!

    Let me congratulate retired Marine Corps General James Cartwright for informing our nation of a simple fact. We are looking at a half trillion dollar bill to rebuild our 5000 aging nuclear weapons. Most leaders realize that we can’t afford that and need no more than 1000 nukes. Which should we cut, air launched, submarine launched, or land launched? Most likely, we’ll cut all three, mostly for political reasons since there’s lots of money to share among defense contractors.

    Cartwright has disrupted this assumption by noting geography. He points out the our 450 Minutemen missiles kept in silos in the American Midwest can only be used against Russia, which is an unlikely enemy. I realize some Americans cannot shake their Cold war indoctrination about evil Ruskies, but we have no serious quarrel with Russia, which should be our ally against a rising China and Middle East chaos.

    The Minutemen missiles are immobile, and were designed with the range to hit targets in the Soviet Union by arcing over the Polar region. They don’t have the range to strike many targets elsewhere, and firing them over Russia would be extremely foolish. The Russian military might assume they are under attack and launch a counter strike. Even if we informed the Russians and ask them to trust us, they don’t want American nukes attacking from their airspace. If we somehow end up in a nuclear war, we don’t want to anger Russia. So its best to eliminate the entire Minutemen system and keep more air and sea based nuclear warheads.