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US nuclear weapons poised for catastrophe

It was bad enough when, last April, 17 US Air Force missile officers were relieved for dereliction of duty at the Minuteman III base at Minot, N.D. A commander there decried “rot” in the force that controls the most sensitive tripwire in the nuclear arsenal. The Minot missile wing is made up of squadrons named “Vulgar Vultures,” “Gravehaulers,” and “Wolf Pack.”

The good news last spring, according to an Air Force spokesperson at the time, was that the sister missile wing at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana was rated “excellent.” Its squadrons have slightly less puerile names: “First Aces,” “Red Dawgs,” and “Farsiders.” But the second shoe fell this month when the Malmstrom officers, too, failed a safety and security inspection. “This unit fumbled,” said Lieutenanat General James M. Kowalski, chief of the Global Strike Command. “The team did not demonstrate the right procedures.” The general declined to elaborate, lest he reveal “potential vulnerability” in America’s intercontinental ballistic missile force.

But the vulnerability is there for all to see. The United States nuclear establishment has been wracked with problems for years. These are especially acute among thousands of officers at the controls of three bases where 450 Minuteman III missiles stand in buried silos on high alert.


In 2008, a Pentagon review found “a dramatic and unacceptable decline” in the way the Air Force was handling its nuclear mission. Senior officials were cashiered. Their replacements were ordered to fix the problems. They have failed to do so. What should be the most rigorously disciplined element in the US military is repeatedly found unworthy of its awesome responsibility. That’s a wake-up call, yet the nation sleeps on.

In-house investigators have defended the proficiency of the Minuteman III force, blithely faulting mere “attitude” problems in the ranks of the missile control officers. Their once prestigious work has been marginalized as the role of nuclear weapons in national security strategy is de-emphasized. Investigators sympathetically explain that missile officer morale is hurt by damaged career prospects, and by the interminable routine of maintaining readiness for an all-out missile launch that no one actually expects. With President Obama emphasizing the goal of a world without nuclear weapons, as he did again in Berlin last June, the Americans in charge of existing nuclear weapons can feel like specimens caught in amber.


But, of course, fossils are indeed what they are, and their morale problem is itself the warning. Sitting at bunkered controls awaiting the order to turn the key that will spark an irrational and wholly unjustifiable armageddon is absurd, and the key-holders know it. Minuteman missiles embody the madness of America’s post-Cold War nuclear posture, even while these aging land-based weapons are irrelevant to the still-necessary posture of deterrence. Officers’ “attitude” problems show they are attuned to the senselessness of their situation. The hair trigger is harebrained.

And supremely dangerous. The missiles are positioned in easily targeted fixed silos across a wide-open western landscape. They are poised for launch on moments’ notice less because of strategic necessity than because they are bound by the rule of “use them or lose them.” The scenario was conceived 50 years ago, under circumstances that are now forgotten. The land-based ICBMs, more than nuclear armed submarines or aircraft, have become the thread from which hangs the sword of accidental holocaust. Fail-safe “right procedures” are the only protection — yet current crews are proving incapable of following those procedures. Fail-safe is the joke that is not funny.

President Obama’s Berlin speech, a call to negotiate far lower levels in the number of nukes, was rebuffed by Moscow, but there is no need for negotiations to deal with the outmoded, redundant, and dangerous Minuteman III missile force. In 1991, George H.W. Bush exercised what was called “presidential nuclear initiatives” to unilaterally cut thousands of outmoded and dangerous short- and intermediate-range weapons from the nuclear arsenal. The Soviet Union matched the reductions. Obama could cite the precedent, and do likewise with the Minuteman IIIs, even more outmoded elements of the nuclear force. Budget sequestration is forcing a recasting of the Pentagon’s priorities, and the many billions spent on a senseless, perilous, and militarily useless nuclear behemoth is obviously the place to begin.


James Carroll writes regularly for the Globe.

Correction: An earlier version of this column gave an incorrect location for the Malmstrom Air Force Base. It is in Montana, not Wyoming.