Andy Parthum spends his workday 18 metres below ground awaiting the order he hopes never arrives: to launch the most powerful weapon ever devised by man. He is a nuclear ‘‘missileer’’ — an airman who does his duty not in the air but in a hole in the ground.
On both counts — the possibility of firing weapons that could kill millions, and the subterranean confinement — a missileer lives with pressures few others know. It’s not active combat, although the Air Force calls them combat crew members. Yet no one can exclude the possibility, remote as it may be, that one day a president will deliver the gut-wrenching order that would compel a missileer to unleash nuclear hell.
‘‘Absolutely, it weighs on your mind,’’ Parthum, 25, said on a recent afternoon at Juliet-01, a Minuteman 3 missile launch site near Minot Air Force Base, whose 91st Missile Wing controls 150 of the nation’s 450 Minuteman missiles.
It may come as a surprise to some that the Air Force still operates intercontinental ballistic missiles, or ICBMs. And therein lies part of the problem for missileers, who feel underappreciated in a military that has long since shifted its main focus to fighting small wars, striking with unmanned drones and countering terrorism and cyber attacks.
Parthum, however, says he takes pride in his role.
‘‘It’s sobering. It’s not something that’s taken lightly by anybody,’’ Parthum said as he and his crewmate, 23-year-old 2nd Lieutenant Oliver Parsons, showed visitors around the small launch control center where they were several hours into a 24-hour watch over a group of 10 missiles.
It’s a sometimes tedious duty the Air Force calls ‘‘standing alert.’’ Some say their biggest challenge is staying alert.
Missileers, typically 22- to 27-year-old lieutenants and captains, work in pairs, with a relief crew arriving every 24 hours. A missileer generally does two ‘‘alerts’’ a week. It was Parthum’s 118th. (He keeps track.)
It’s not hard to see why some missileers find it hard to adjust to life there. An 8-tonne blast door seals their launch control center from a potential incoming nuclear detonation. Twice last year, launch officers were disciplined after admitting they left the blast door open while a crewmate was asleep — a security violation. That and other lapses in discipline, training and leadership were documented by The Associated Press over the past year, prompting Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel to declare that ‘‘something is wrong.’’
The ICBM launch control center is actually two separate structures. An outer protective shell is made of reinforced concrete lined with a steel plate. A smaller, box-like enclosure where the missileers work, eat and sleep is suspended inside the protective shell by pneumatic cylinders called ‘‘shock isolators’’ attached to the shell’s ceiling by heavy chains; the isolators are designed to keep the space stable in the event of a nuclear blast.
These underground command posts have changed relatively little since they were built in the early 1960s, although the Air Force recently committed to refurbishing them to make a missileer’s life a bit easier. Juliet-01, the command post an AP reporting team was permitted to visit, had just been repainted and spruced up to remove corrosion caused by water intrusion, giving it what one officer called ‘‘that new car smell.’’
The launch centre is accessible only from an above-ground building that resembles a small ranch-style home. An access shaft descends from a vestibule inside the building, which is controlled by a security team and surrounded by alarms and a chain-link fence.
The US has never fired an ICBM, other than for flight testing. Their stated purpose is to help deter nuclear war by convincing a potential attacker that it would have more to lose than to gain.
ICBM duty is far removed from the glamour, guts and glory associated with the Air Force. It not only falls short of the image of a fighter or bomber pilot streaking across enemy skies, it requires sitting, unseen and largely unappreciated, in a stuffy capsule to baby-sit missiles.
Upward of two-thirds of missileers were ‘‘volunteered’’ for the job after gaining their officer commission. Once they complete basic ICBM training, they are sent on four-year tours to one of three missile bases: Minot, Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana, or F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming.
The responsibility is enormous, the cost of mistakes potentially colossal, ranging from environmental damage to inadvertently triggering a nuclear war.
Over time, with the passing of the Cold War, the Air Force lost focus on its nuclear mission. It also lost a good deal of what remained of the allure of serving as a missileer.
‘‘Even during the Cold War while facing down the Soviets, it could be difficult to convince bright young airmen that what they were doing was worthwhile,’’ Robert W. Stanley II wrote in a research paper in 2011 before becoming vice commander of the 341st Missile Wing at Malmstrom. Last year he was promoted to commander there but resigned in March 2014 amid a scandal over exam cheating among his missileers.
In his paper, ‘‘Reviving a Culture of Disciplined Compliance in Air Force Nuclear Operations,’’ Stanley called for missileer incentive pay.
The Air Force is heeding that advice. Starting in October, it will offer entry bonuses to newly trained missileers, as well as ‘‘duty pay’’ for security forces, missileers and others who operate in the missile fields.
Over the past year, The Associated Press has documented evidence of security problems, low morale and other troubles in the US nuclear missile corps. In response, the Air Force is now undertaking a series of management changes.
—In April 2013, 19 missile crew members in the 91st Missile Wing at Minot Air Force Base, North Dakota, were temporarily taken off duty and given weeks of remedial training after being found unfit to perform. The wing’s deputy commander of operations complained of ‘‘rot’’ in the force. The officer in charge of crew training and proficiency was fired.
—The 341st Missile Wing at Malmstrom Air Force Base, Montana, failed a safety-and-security inspection. Nine days later, the officer in charge of security forces there was relieved of duty. The unit passed a do-over in October.
—An internal Air Force review of the Malmstrom inspection, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, revealed that the inspection failed because security forces did not respond adequately to a simulated hostile takeover of a silo housing a nuclear missile. The Air Force implemented numerous corrective measures, mainly designed to increase and improve security forces training.
—Twice, the Air Force punished officers involved in separate incidents of opening the blast door of their underground launch control center while one of the two launch officers was asleep, in violation of Air Force rules.
—A Rand Corporation research study obtained by the AP found that missile corps members feel ‘‘burnout’’ from what they see as exhausting, unrewarding and stressful work. The report also cited heightened levels of misconduct such as spousal abuse.
—In October 2013, the Air Force removed Major General Michael Carey from command of the 20th Air Force, which is responsible for the entire Minuteman 3 missile force, for embarrassing, drunken behaviour at meetings in Russia.
—In January 2014, dozens of missile launch officers were implicated in a cheating scandal at Malmstrom and were stripped of their certification in what the Air Force called the largest such breach of integrity in the nuclear force. The cheating involves the monthly test on their knowledge of how to operate the missiles. That scandal is revealed as part of a drug-use investigation that involves three ICBM launch officers.
—In late January, Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel ordered an independent review of the nuclear force and summoned the most senior Pentagon leaders to discuss its serious missteps, leadership lapses and personnel problems.
—In March, the Air Force fired nine mid-level nuclear commanders and supervisors, allowed a senior commander to resign, and said it would discipline dozens of junior officers in response to the exam-cheating scandal at Malmstrom.
—The Air Force has unveiled a series of new or expanded programs to improve leadership development, to modernise the three ICBM bases and to reinforce ‘‘core values,’’ including integrity. It also changed its exam scoring method to a pass-fail system to ease perceived pressure to score 100 percent on every exam.
—The Air Force also plans to begin offering incentive pay to members of the missile corps, including bonus pay for new ‘‘missileers,’’ as the airmen are known, after they complete their entry-level ICBM training, beginning Oct. 1.
—Major General Jack Weinstein, who succeeded Carey as the top ICBM commander last fall, said in an AP interview in June that he has taken numerous steps aimed at fundamentally changing the culture of the ICBM force. Among his aims is to halt micromanagement of the young officers in charge of the deployed ICBMs.
—The Air Force will offer eligible members of the nuclear missile corps a Nuclear Deterrence Operations Service Medal to provide a tangible recognition of their contributions to national defense.
—Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James has proposed to Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel that the commander of Air Force Global Strike Command, which is in charge of the entire nuclear Air Force, be elevated in rank to four-star general. The current commander is a three-star, Lieutenant General Stephen Wilson. A raise to four stars will require an act of Congress.
The US Air Force’s nuclear missiles have stood ready for war on short notice for more than 50 years. Americans tend to assume the missiles are safe, if they even remember they exist. But safety cannot be taken for granted.
President John F Kennedy said the missiles represent ‘‘the most awesome destructive power that any nation or any man has ever conceived.’’
A look, in brief, at the missiles and their mission:
The Air Force operates just one type of land-based nuclear missile, the Minuteman 3. It’s a class of weapon known as an intercontinental ballistic missile, or ICBM. The term refers to the fact that it has global reach. It is ballistic because its trajectory consists of three parts: powered flight from the ground through the Earth’s atmosphere; free-flight through space; and re-entry until it hits its target.
The US has 450 of the missiles, each with a single nuclear warhead attached. The missiles are guided to a target by a self-contained navigation system that uses motion and rotation sensors to track and update the missile’s position and orientation.
Each Minuteman 3 missile is based in its own underground silo ‘‘hardened’’ with concrete to withstand an enemy nuclear strike. The silo is linked via communications cables to a launch control center, also underground.
At the heart of the ICBM force are the men and women who command the missiles. They are called missileers and are junior officers — lieutenants and captains, typically ages 22 to 27. Two missileers operate an underground launch control center, which is responsible for 10 missiles.
The missileers do 24-hour ‘‘alert’’ shifts, then hand off to a replacement crew. Because the missiles are meant to be ready for combat on short notice, the launch capsules are manned without interruption, 365 days a year.
The ICBM force is divided between three Air Force bases — Malmstrom in Montana, F E Warren in Wyoming and Minot in North Dakota. Each base operates 150 missiles, divided into three squadrons of 50 missiles each.
The force is commanded by a two-star general who heads the 20th Air Force. He answers to a three-star general at Air Force Global Strike Command at Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana who is responsible not only for the ICBMs but also for the B-2 and B-52 bombers that have a nuclear mission as well.
The current fleet of Minuteman 3 missiles was first deployed in 1970, making them older than any of the officers entrusted with the keys to launch them.
They are the third generation of Minuteman missiles. The first generation went into service in October 1962 during the Cuban missile crisis. The Minuteman 2 became operational in 1966, and the current version was declared operational at Minot in December 1970, according to an official Air Force history of the ICBM.
No ICBM has ever been launched other than for testing. The only time a nuclear weapon has been used in war was in August 1945 when the US dropped one bomb on Hiroshima, Japan, and another on Nagasaki, compelling Japan’s surrender.
The Obama administration has decided to take 50 of the 450 Minuteman missiles off active duty by February 2018, but it is committed to preserving their role as part of the ‘‘triad’’ of strategic nuclear forces, along with bombers and nuclear-armed submarines.
Because the missiles have long exceeded their original 10-year life expectancy and are in need of modernisation, the Air Force is in the early stages of planning a series of further upgrades to keep the weapon system functioning for at least another 40 years.