There was a time — a time many of us would like to forget and others will be too young to remember — when a genuine and justified fear of a nuclear showdown between the United States and the Soviet Union was an accepted part of everyday American life.
That fear was a way of life during the Cold War, which prolonged the struggle for political and military supremacy between East and West, Moscow and Washington.
To defend our country against a possible attack by malevolent Soviet strategists, the U.S. government had no choice but to deploy a huge array of nuclear weapons around the country.
But then, thankfully, came 1989, and with it the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Cold War finally was over, and Americans felt a great sense of relief.
And so began the process of gradually forgetting all about those nuclear weapons in America’s widely dispersed arsenal. However, they never went away, and now their presence is back in the news, although not because of any new threat from afar.
This time it’s about an unlikely scandal that has bruised the reputation of the U.S. Air Force.
Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James, with admirable candor, told reporters Friday that the service’s nuclear missile force is suffering from a culture of “undue fear” that can be attributed to drugs, a cheating scandal and various other recent embarrassments.
James cited the command climate at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana as one example of the current situation. Officers based there are accused of cheating on a nuclear proficiency test because they feared their chances of promotion would be ruined if their test scores were too low.
Many of the 92 officers who were decertified were punished because they knew about the cheating but did not report it.
“We are going to get to the bottom of this,” James promised.
Local residents familiar with the rigorous discipline and accountability maintained at MacDill Air Force Base will be particularly surprised by the Malmstrom situation but also will have little doubt that the Air Force will follow through.
Malmstrom is one of three bases for America’s arsenal of 450 intercontinental ballistic missiles. Air Force officials say they have retested about 500 launch officers at the three bases, and that all but 22 passed, with an average score of 95 percent.
Lt. Gen. Stephen W. Wilson, commander of the Air Force Global Strike Command, said officials do not believe the cheating would be found at the country’s other nuclear launch sites because the tests at each base are different.
But James admitted troops aren’t hearing much about the nuclear mission from either their senior commanders or from the civilian leadership of the Pentagon.
That’s because, she explained, the relevance of America’s nuclear force is less obvious today to both the public and the military.
“I also heard that although we, as senior leaders, talk about the importance of the mission that the team in the field doesn’t always see that talk backed up by concrete action,” James said during a press conference.
The crews who maintain and protect the missiles and their warheads also complained to her about micro-management by their commanders, she added.
Malmstrom has only 190 people assigned to the nuclear missile program, and the scandal has resulted in the decertification of more than half the force. This, in turn, has forced the Air Force to increase the number of shifts the two-man crews spend in the missile silos and to reassign personnel from other sites.
Wilson said those assigned to missile duty now are standing 10 alerts each month, up from eight, and that personnel from elsewhere have been added to help lighten the burden.
“We are confident in the security of our nuclear mission,” James said, adding she had told Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel last week that the nuclear force remains highly trained and ready.
And James promised to regularly update Hagel and the public on efforts to improve the command climate, morale and commitment to core values (such as honesty and responsibility) at the three nuclear missile bases.
The Air Force has assembled small working groups of junior officers to identify challenges and solutions. Wilson said they will have their first report ready by the end of this month.
James also stated that more money may be set aside to improve maintenance, because “equipment is not fully maintained.”
That admission would be more distressing were it not for the fact nuclear weapons are not nearly as necessary as they once were. That, however, would change in a hurry if Iran or North Korea were to become major members of the nuclear community.
If that happens, the Cold War won’t seem so distant. And, despite this recent lapse, the American people no doubt still trust and respect the Air Force.