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Solving Nuclear Base Foul-ups and National Laboratory Mismanagement the Easy Way

By Russ Wellen, November 19, 2014
Minuteman Global Strike Command

A missile wing at Minot Air Force Base conducting a simulated launch of a Minuteman ICBM. (Photo: AF Global Strike / Flickr Commons)

“Today’s long-expected internal and external reviews of the Department of Defense (DoD) nuclear operations,” reads a Nov. 15 press release for the Los Alamos Study Group, “do not address the root causes of the operational lapses that plague DoD nuclear forces, the Los Alamos Study Group charges.”

Those lapses were explained by Robert Burns in the Associates Press on the same day:

The trouble began [at Minot Air Force Base], trouble that has torn at the core of the nuclear Air Force and compelled two of the last three secretaries of defense ― first Robert Gates and now Chuck Hagel ― to ask: Who is minding the store?

Minot Air Force Base has had its share, and then some, of bad publicity about nuclear weapons foul-ups, followed by hard questions from Washington about why it and other nuclear bases are caught in a recurring cycle of trouble and recovery.

… The trouble is not so much the Minuteman, although it passed its intended life span decades ago.

The trouble is the creaky equipment and facilities that keep the missiles armed, secure and ready for a launch order from the president.

The trouble also is the sagging morale of the men and women entrusted to operate the weapons.

The problems have accumulated: drug use, exam cheating, domestic abuse, security violations, training lapses and inspection failures. Last year one senior officer at Minot summed it up by lamenting “rot” at the heart of the force.

LASG Executive Director Greg Mello is quoted thusly in the press release:

“No amount of money or silly made-up medals will ever lead to ‘good morale’ in ICBM officers in particular, who must sit in a deep hole in the ground awaiting orders to end the world. The mental gymnastics of nuclear deterrence theory do not make human sense to those who must live, day and night, in an inhuman environment with world-ending orders locked in a box in front of them. They know they and their children will be first to die. They know that in that final moment, their sacrifice of years, their struggle against doubts, will have been meaningless ― and they know that they themselves will have been the agents of unspeakable war crimes.”

Continuing in this eloquent vein, Mello says of the DoD reviews (sly image emphasized in italics):

“These reports miss the forest for the trees. They are crafted within an ideological system that is itself irrational and bizarre, and examine management details AS IF they could possibly make sense. The only thing missing is sanity ― a sane appreciation for the world-as-it-is outside the walls of the national security echo chamber, itself a capsule buried far from sunlight and air.

He then points out what should be perfectly obvious about improving the morale of the “missileers,” but isn’t.

“I think any honest person with an ounce of common sense realizes that the only real path to higher morale in the nuclear weapons business lies in gradually shutting it down, starting with the most stupid parts first. The hope that the nuclear sword of Damocles can finally be lifted, reinforced by gradual progress, is what can bring higher morale ― and only that.”

Norris Bradbury, the Director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory from 1945 to 1970, Mello continues

“… told every arriving new employee at LANL that ‘we are doing our job in order to give the politicians time to solve the problem of nuclear weapons.’ … Today’s missile officers are told, instead ― what? That the doomsday machine of which you are an inanimate cog is an essential aspect of U.S. national security essentially forever, or some such malarkey. This, no one in their heart of hearts believes. The system they directly observe contradicts all ideas of security.”

To re-emphasize, the answer to the problems that plague not only ICBM installations, but national nuclear laboratory management, is not to keep searching for ways to prop up the psyches of missileers, nor to continue to propagate the patently counterintuitive idea that upgrading nuclear weapons is a prerequisite to eventual disarmament. The United States needs to place its bets on the odds that other states in possession of, or considering developing, nuclear weapons will follow our lead if we demonstrate a commitment to wholesale disarmament.

Granted, we may not be able to wrest funds no longer spent on nuclear weapons from our national defense budget, where, instead, it may be diverted to advanced conventional weapons. But, at least, with one of the two main threats to our species eliminated, we can now give our undivided attention to the other, global warming.

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