The number of intercontinental ballistic missiles, or ICBMs, is dwindling, their future defense role is in doubt, and missteps and leadership lapses documented by The Associated Press this year have raised questions about how the force is managed.
The AP revealed one missile officer's lament of "rot" inside the force, and an independent assessment for the Air Force found signs of "burnout" among missile launch crews. The AP also disclosed that four ICBM launch officers were disciplined this year for violating security rules by opening the blast door to their underground command post while one crew member was asleep.
One of the most glaring examples of poor discipline is the case of Maj. Gen. Michael Carey, who was fired in October from his job as commander of the ICBM force. An Air Force investigation released last week said that while leading a U.S. delegation on a three-day trip to Russia last summer, Carey drank heavily, partied with "suspect" local women, insulted his Russian hosts, complained about his bosses, and lamented in public the low level of morale in the ICBM force.
Pairs of young officers are assigned to ICBM launch centers for 24-hour shifts. They keep a computer-linked eye on the 10 missiles for which they are responsible, waiting for a potential launch order and fighting little but boredom. Some are on their first Air Force assignment. Most were "volunteered" for the duty. Many find it unsatisfying.
"It's a real problem to keep those young men and women interested in going on alert three or four times a month for 24 hours at a time when it's hard to explain to them who the enemy is,” says Eugene Habiger, a retired Air Force four-star general who headed Strategic Command from 1996 to 1998. “It doesn't have the allure that it did during the height of the Cold War when you felt like you were doing something."
The ICBM is one leg of a strategic "triad" of nuclear weapons delivered by long-range bomber aircraft, submarines hidden at sea, and land-based missiles. Once called America's "ace in the hole,” it is the card never played. No missiles have ever been fired in anger. Some say that proves their enduring value as a deterrent to war. To others it suggests the weapon is a relic.
Before becoming secretary of defense, Chuck Hagel endorsed a report outlining a phased elimination of nuclear weapons that would scrap ICBMs within 10 years. The report by a group called Global Zero said the ICBM “has lost its central utility” in nuclear deterrence.
Tom Nichols, an author and professor of national security affairs at the Naval War College and a firm believer in the value of ICBMs, foresees the strategic nuclear arsenal possibly being cut to “low hundreds” of deployed warheads in coming years from its current total of nearly 1,700.
Nichols said whatever their number as part of a smaller force, the Pentagon should consider taking a portion of the missiles off high alert, meaning those would no longer be ready to launch quickly.
“It would reduce a lot of stress” on those who operate and manage them, he said.