Minot’s Launch Control Fail: Reason #532 Why Nuclear Deterrence Is a Fragile Foundation for Peace

Robert Burns of the Associated Press reports that the Air Force removed authority to control – and launch – nuclear missiles from 17 officers of the 91st Missile Wing in Minot, North Dakota after they were given a poor review for a series of mistakes.

The tip-off to trouble was a March inspection, which earned the equivalent of a “D” grade when tested on its mastery of Minuteman III missile launch operations. … In addition to the 17, possible disciplinary action is pending against one other officer at Minot who investigators found had purposefully broken a missile safety rule in an unspecified act that could have compromised the secret codes that enable the launching of missiles. [Emphasis added.]

Human error when on nuclear launch duty is serious enough. But willfulness only further increases the degree of difficulty of managing nuclear risk.

You could tell it was bad. The deputy commander of the 91st Missile Wing, Burns reports, wrote in an email:

“We are breaking you down, and we will build from the ground up. … It takes real leaders to lead through a crisis and we are, in fact, in a crisis right now.”

He told his subordinates, “You must continue to turn over the rocks and find the rot.”

The deputy commander’s name, by the way, is General Jack D. Ripper, I mean, Lt. Col. Jay Folds. But what exactly turns these officers into slackers? Burns asked Bruce Blair, the co-founder of Global Zero and one-time launch control officer.

“The nuclear air force is suffering from a deep malaise caused by the declining relevance of their mission since the Cold War’s end over 20 years ago. … Minuteman launch crews have long been marginalized and demoralized by the fact that the Air Force’s culture and fast-track careers revolve around flying planes, not sitting in underground bunkers baby-sitting nuclear-armed missiles.”

In other words, they’re sulking. But how can the Air Force maintain a nuclear command without officers who aren’t immune from making mistakes or obsessing over their stalled careers? By replacing them with robots! Hey, “smart,” autonomous drones are starting to seem inevitable. Why not adapt them to nuclear launch control?

Of course, that would be Reason Number 533 Why Nuclear Deterrence Is a Fragile Foundation for Peace.