Once known as America’s ‘ace in the hole,’ US nuclear missiles are now a force in distress


WASHINGTON — The hundreds of nuclear missiles that have stood war-ready for decades in underground silos along remote stretches of America, silent and unseen, packed with almost unimaginable destructive power, are a force in distress, if not in decline.

They are still a fearsome superpower symbol, primed to unleash nuclear hell on a moment’s notice at any hour of any day, capable of obliterating people and places halfway around the globe if a president so orders.

But 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.

After one of the Air Force’s three ICBM groups failed a safety and security inspection in August, GOP Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon of California, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said it was time for the Air Force to refocus on its ICBM responsibilities and to “recommit itself from the top down” to safe nuclear operations. Air Force leaders say the nuclear mission already is a priority and that the missiles are safe and secure.

Today it is the topic of a debate engaged by relatively few Americans: What role should ICBMs play in U.S. defense, and at what financial cost, given a security scene dominated by terrorism, cyberthreats and the spread of nuclear technologies to Iran and North Korea?

The Congressional Budget Office on Friday estimated that strategic nuclear forces would cost the Pentagon $132 billion over the next 10 years, based on current plans. That would include $20 billion for the ICBM force alone. It does not include an estimated $56 billion for the 10-year cost of communications and other systems needed to command and control the whole nuclear force.

One prominent American who has questioned the future of ICBMs is Chuck Hagel, the current secretary of defense. As a private citizen in 2012 he endorsed a report that outlined a phased elimination of nuclear weapons, to include scrapping U.S. ICBMs within 10 years. The report by a group called Global Zero said the ICBM “has lost its central utility” in nuclear deterrence.

At the core of the ICBM problem is the reality that the U.S. sees less use for nuclear weapons and aims to one day eliminate them, possibly starting with the missiles. The trend is clear, advanced by President Barack Obama’s declared vision of a nuclear weapons-free world.

Last summer Obama directed the military to come up with new non-nuclear strike options, not as a substitute for the weapons but as a key to reducing their role.

Thus the nuclear mission, not just the number of weapons, is narrowing. So apparently is the attraction of being a nuclear warrior.

“We are seeing a difficult time sustaining cutting-edge morale at a time when the overall signals coming from the top are that the nuclear deterrence force is no longer a priority,” Hamre said. “How do we recruit front-line talent into a field when senior civilian and military leadership never talks about the mission? Young professionals look up for signals. They are seeing the right words, but there isn’t energy behind them.”

Eugene Habiger, a retired Air Force four-star general who headed Strategic Command from 1996 to 1998, puts it this way:

“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. 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 current ICBM, known as Minuteman 3, has been in service since 1970. The Air Force operates 450 of them and has suggested cutting to 400 as part of adapting to the new strategic arms treaty with Russia by 2018.


Full article: Once known as America’s ‘ace in the hole,’ US nuclear missiles are now a force in distress (StarTribune)

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