Power

America's Aging Nukes Are as Anachronistic as the Floppy Disks That Control Them

The nuclear arsenal is getting a revamp, mostly due to human problems.

Ben Richmond

Ben Richmond

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Even though America's inter-continental ballistic missile systems run off of impossibly old-seeming 8-inch floppy disks, the problems that led Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to order a review of America's nukes weren't technical as much as they were cultural and administrative. 

So while there will be changes to how America feeds and cares for the world's biggest collection of nuclear weapons, the floppies aren't the problem.

When the Associated Press announced last night, without too many specifics, that Hagel was going to seek between $1 and 10 billion to upgrade America's most-deadly weapons, there was skepticism that the money would actually address the problems at the root.

"Throwing money after problems may fix some technical issues but it is unlikely to resolve the dissolution that must come from sitting in a silo hole in the Midwest with missiles on high alert to respond to a nuclear attack that is unlikely to ever come," Hans Kristensen, a nuclear expert with the Federation of American Scientists, told the AP.

Josh Harkinson over at Mother Jones has done a fantastic job of documenting the problems that plague the Air Force's nuclear ICBMs. While there have been major gaffes, like when "six nuclear missiles went missing for 36 hours after a crew at Minot Air Force Base mistakenly loaded them onto a plane and flew them across the country," many of the problems seem to stem from the tension between knowing that these missiles are too destructive to be used, but also so potentially dangerous that they require constant vigilance. 

They're America's defensive version of The Desert of the Tartars, and just like in the 1976 film, the human element feels the strain. As Harkinson explained:

98 missileers were implicated in a cheating scandal and nine midlevel commanders were fired; a leaked email from the commander of the nuclear missile wing at North Dakota's Minot Air Force base complained of "rot" in the missile force; and Gen. Michael Carey was removed as commander of the ICBM program after an official trip to Russia, where he engaged in "inappropriate behavior," including heavy drinking, rudeness to his hosts, and associating with "suspect" women. Just last week, the Air Force fired two high-level commanders in the ICBM program and disciplined a third for various leadership lapses, including the maltreatment of subordinates.

So this morning, with a conspicuous Band-Aid on his face from "engaging" with the corner of a kitchen cabinet, Hagel announced the results of an internal and external review of the nation's nuclear forces, and outlined how he hopes to overhaul America's nuclear arsenal.

The biggest equipment overhaul seems to be that the Air Force is going to update its ICBM security force helicopter fleet and the "associated infrastructure" for the Vietnam-era Huey helicopters.

But most of the changes seemed aimed at elevating the status of America's most deadly weapons and the most-bummed out people that maintain them. The US Air Force has been granted the authority to elevate the rank of Global Strike Command to a 4-Star general's position from being a 3-starer, and elevate the rank of Nuclear Integration to a 3-star from a two. Even though it doesn't really seem like it, apparently this matters quite a bit.

"When you move somebody from a three-star to a four-star, it changes the decision forum that they're eligible to sit in, [and] it changes the way their peers look at them because they're a peer now, not one level below," Clark Murdoch, a nuclear weapons expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies who previously worked in the Office of the Air Force Chief of Staff, told Stars and Stripes back in June. "It is a status thing, but status matters in the military."

But what of the dissolute missileer who is "sitting in a silo hole in the Midwest with missiles on high alert to respond to a nuclear attack that is unlikely to ever come"? In the same Stars and Stripes article, a former missileer, Brian Weeden said, "There are already plenty of three-stars and four-stars around, and creating a couple of new ones to represent the missileers is not going to have that big of an impact...More high-ranking generals means more bureaucracy."

Adding more high-ranking officials seems somewhat counter-intuitive given that the investigation also found that the nuclear enterprise is "subject to a culture of excessive inspections," and called for fewer, but better inspections of silo sites. It also called for better pay incentives and switching the testing system from requiring that airmen get 100 percent, to a simple pass/fail, presumably to prevent cheating.

The extra $1.5 billion or so that Hagel wants to add to the force's budget over the next five years isn't as high as some were projecting, and even anti-Big Government GOPers exempt the DoD from their "slash the budget" rhetoric.

Still, reading over the suggestions from the review it seems like nuclear weapons are almost all downsides: high cost of maintenance, a heavy toll taken on personnel, and (thankfully) limited utility, though I admit the degree to which something is a deterrent seems impossible to measure.

Nevertheless, as warfare moves from the Cold War-era when these things were built, nuclear-tipped ICBMs are starting to look as anachronistic as the floppy disks that control them.