Saturday, April 12, 2014

Leavin' on a Jet Plane

The US Air Force has had a rough go at it the past year. Recent rumors of drug use and cheating among Air Force personnel tasked with maintaining the readiness of our land based nuclear deterrent led to the resignation of Colonel Robert Stanley, commander of the 341st Missile Wing, and the removal of nine other officers. This of course follows upon the December sacking of Major General Michael J. Carey, commander of the 20th Air Force, which is responsible for 450 nuclear missiles, for his drunken and boorish behavior while on an official trip to Moscow last July. Indeed Air Force malfeasance stretches back to at least 2007, when a B-52 bomber was mistakenly loaded with armed nuclear bombs and flown over the nation's heartland from Minot Air Force Base in Montana to Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana. That incident led to the firing of both the civilian Secretary of the Air Force and the Air Force Chief of Staff. With the litany of recent mistakes made by the Air Force and dangerously low morale among its missile forces is it any wonder that some are now arguing for the abolition of the service?

"Push the button, I dare you"
As provocative a solution as abolishing the Air Force seems, doing so will not improve the lagging morale of the nation's missile based nuclear forces. But what, if anything, can be done to ensure these recent mistakes will not be repeated in the future and to improve the forces' morale? The 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) seems to offer a starting point for rejuvenating a depressed force.

Of the three pillars for the future defense strategy noted in the QDR; in defending the homeland, pride of place is given to the deterrent effect of US nuclear forces. As stated by the QDR:
Our nuclear forces contribute to deterring aggression against U.S. and allied interests in multiple regions, assuring U.S. allies that our extended deterrence guarantees are credible, and demonstrating that we can defeat or counter aggression if deterrence fails. U.S. nuclear forces also help convince potential adversaries that they cannot successfully escalate their way out of failed conventional aggression against the United States or our allies and partners.
Clearly and repeatedly denoting the mission and responsibilities of the nation's missile based nuclear forces will not only hone the focus of the nation's missileers but also give them a renewed sense of pride in the work they do, something severely lacking since the fall of the Soviet Union. Indeed, as unfortunate as renewed antagonism with Russia over Ukraine has become; the Air Force should take full advantage of the crisis to increase training and improve doctrinal understanding of the mission of its nuclear forces. A well trained force, instilled with a belief in its mission is a happy force.

There are additional measures the Air Force can undertake to improve the morale of its units. As part of its commitment to the Obama administration's New START treaty with Russia, the Air Force will soon remove 50 nuclear missiles from their silos and put them in storage. However, the silos will not be decommissioned, but will be kept 'warm' i.e. fully manned. The Air Force originally planned to decommission and destroy the silos and reduce the missile force, however, fearing the loss of jobs this would entail, certain Congressmen forced the Air Force to keep personnel stationed in the silos. Its hard to see how the morale of highly specialized troops will improve when their mission will entail little more than custodial work. Instead of forcing the Air Force to maintain a bloated force, Congress should allow the silos to be fully decommissioned. The resulting job losses will be insignificant, especially in states where the shale gas boom is creating thousands of jobs.

While there is no silver bullet for curing low morale, the potential danger posed by a depressed nuclear force should spur the Air Force to seek out every cure imaginable. By starting with some of the above recommendations the Air Force will go a long way towards securing the future of America's missile based nuclear deterrent.  

No comments: