Nuclear missile program shows age
MINOT AIR FORCE BASE, N.D. — The Air Force asserts with pride that the nation's nuclear missile system, more than 40 years old and designed during the Cold War to counter the now-defunct Soviet Union, is safe and secure. None has ever been used in combat or launched accidentally.
But it admits to fraying at the edges: time-worn command posts, corroded launch silos, failing support equipment and an emergency-response helicopter fleet so antiquated that a replacement was deemed “critical” years ago.
The Minuteman is no ordinary weapon. The business end of the missile can deliver mass destruction across the globe as quickly as you could have a pizza delivered to your doorstep.
But even as the Minuteman has been updated over the years and remains ready for launch on short notice, the items that support it have grown old. That partly explains why missile corps morale has sagged and discipline has sometimes faltered, as revealed in a series of Associated Press reports documenting leadership, training, disciplinary and other problems in the ICBM force that has prompted worry at the highest levels of the Pentagon.
The airmen who operate, maintain and guard the Minuteman force at bases in North Dakota, Montana and Wyoming recognized a gap between the Air Force's claim that the nuclear mission is “Job 1” and its willingness to invest in it.
“One of the reasons for the low morale is that the nuclear forces feel unimportant, and they are often treated as such, very openly,” says Michelle Spencer, a defense consultant in Alabama who led a nuclear forces study for the Air Force published in 2012. She said in an interview the airmen — they're called Missileers — became disillusioned by an obvious but unacknowledged lack of interest in nuclear priorities among the most senior Air Force leaders.
Spencer's study found that Air Force leaders were “cynical about the nuclear mission, its future and its true — versus publicly stated — priority to the Air Force.” Several key leadership posts have since changed hands, and while Spencer says she sees important improvements, she's worried about the Air Force's commitment to getting the nuclear forces what they need.
This is no surprise to those responsible for nuclear weapons policy. An independent advisory group, in a report to the Pentagon last year, minced no words. It said the Air Force must show a “believable commitment” to modernizing the force.
“If the practice continues to be to demand that the troops compensate for manpower and skill shortfalls, operate in inferior facilities and perform with failing support equipment, there is high risk of failure” to meet the demands of the mission, it said.
Since its initial deployment in 1970,, the Minuteman 3 missile itself has been upgraded in all its main components. But much of the rest of the system that keeps the weapon viable and secure has fallen on hard times.
One example is the Huey helicopter fleet, which escorts road convoys that move Minuteman missiles, warheads and other key components. It also moves armed security forces into the missile fields in an emergency, even though it's too slow, too small, too vulnerable to attack and cannot fly sufficient distances.
It's also old — Vietnam War old.
A 2008 Air Force study cited a “critical need” to replace the Hueys “to mitigate missile field security vulnerabilities” and said this need had been identified two years earlier.