The US Air Force suspended  17 officers overseeing nuclear missiles this week after a string of failings.

The US Air Force suspended  17 officers overseeing nuclear missiles this week after a string of failings.

“We are, in fact, in a crisis right now,” wrote commander, Lt. Col. Jay Folds in an internal email obtained by The Associated Press and confirmed by the Air Force. Folds and other senior commanders at Minot Air Force Base removed the 17 launch crew members after determining that they had “more of an attitude problem than a proficiency problem.”  An officer was found to have intentionally broken a safety rule that could have compromised the secret codes enabling missiles to be launched. This followed a March inspection of the 91st Missile Wing at Minot  that resulted in a “D” mark when tested on its mastery of Minuteman III missile launch operations. Despite calling the inspection a “success,” the Air Force began cracking down on the unit that is comprised of 150 officers assigned to missile launch control duty.

The recent history of the Minot base has not been glamorous. Memories are still fresh surrounding the 2007 flight of a B-52 bomber from Minot to Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana that had six nuclear-tipped cruise missiles attached to it. In addition to flying the bomber over several Midwestern states, the plane sat on an open runway for 10 hours in Louisiana before someone noticed it was armed. After a six-week investigation, the Air Force was determined to have paid “lackadaisical” attention in day-to-day operations at the air bases involved in the incident. The Minot wing commander, maintenance crew commander and munitions squadron commander  as well as the Barksdale operational group commander were relieved of duty. “Under 100” additional personnel lost their certification to handle sensitive weaponry.

In 2008, a Pentagon advisory group report found “dramatic and unacceptable decline” in the Air Force’s commitment to the mission. The result was Defense Secretary Robert Gates relieving the top civilian and military leaders of the Air Force. The Air Force has taken numerous steps to improve its nuclear performance, such as creating the Global Strike Command in January 2009 that integrated recommendations following the 2007 incident and improved overall management practices of the United States’ nuclear arsenal .

The relevance of nuclear weapons in the military has significantly declined since the end of the Cold War, yet only recently have policy makers and military leaders begun discussing dramatic cuts in numbers of nuclear weapons and questioning whether the growing costs of maintaining nuclear deterrence are warranted. The 2010 revised nuclear policy calls for reducing the role of nuclear weapons, arguing that they are “poorly suited to address the challenges posed by suicidal terrorists and unfriendly regimes seeking nuclear weapons.” In a 2010 film Nuclear Tipping Point,  General Colin Powell stated: “The one thing that I convinced myself after all these years of exposure to the use of nuclear weapons is that they were useless. They could not be used. If you can have deterrence with an even lower number of weapons, well then why stop there, why not continue on, why not get rid of them altogether.”

The US Air Force and the nuclear weapon were created about the same time and their history has been intertwined since. In 1945, the United States dropped the only two nuclear weapons ever used over Japan. Two years later, President Harry S. Truman signed the National Security Act of 1947, officially establishing the United States Air Force as a separate service under the National Military Establishment (renamed in 1949 the Department of Defense).

After the end of World War II, discussions ensued as to what to do with the nuclear complex and nuclear weapons. “The Army wanted a lot of small nuclear weapons while the Air Force wanted big, huge weapons only,” Murray Gell-Mann remarked at last May at a discussion hosted by the Santa Fe Institute on the history of nuclear weapons. “Some said that [J. Robert] Oppenheimer was a subversive because he supported the Army’s vision, not the Air Force vision.” As numbers of US nuclear weapons began soaring in the 1960s, the military realized how difficult it was to oversee them. Mishaps began to occur causing the Air Force to reduce its requirement for its planes to be loaded with nuclear weapons and to insist that military personnel protecting weapons had to meet the most stringent standards otherwise be relieved of duty. The Air Force continues to uphold its responsibilities despite internal challenges it is facing with a new generation of officers and personnel who were not alive during the Cold War.



Image: Federation of American Scientists

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