Missileers and their duty

Charles Simpson, retired colonel, U.S. Air Force, Breckenridge, Colo.

In recent months, you have read a number of stories about the young men and women who conduct the mission of nuclear deterrence. They are the people who operate, maintain, secure and support a force of 450 Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles at three Air Force bases in the northern plains of our great country. These stories weren’t good news, they were about drug use and cheating on proficiency tests. But then, good news rarely make headlines. These stories were disappointing and troubling to those of us in the Association of Air Force Missileers, a 21-year-old organization of almost 4,000 members. Our members have been involved with the mission of deterrence for over 60 years, with some serving at the very start of the ICBM age, others throughout the Cold War and others in the recent time of terrorism and the growth of nations wanting to be part of the “nuclear club.” Many of our members serve today, at those three northern bases.

As the Executive Director of AAFM, I believe it is imperative to stress that America’s Air Force Missileers are highly trained professional airmen. Moreover, the weapons this group of dedicated patriots oversees are as safe and secure as ever. Missileers have carried out that mission of nuclear deterrence quietly and professionally for a very long time. It is an almost invisible mission and it should be. The fundamental goal of nuclear deterrence is to prevent nuclear war. We Missileers have carried out that mission well, with unannounced pride, and we have met with success. However, problems aren’t new to those of us who have served to make that mission a success. From the very start, we had to meet or exceed extremely high standards of performance and integrity. We evaluated and tested our ability to meet these standards daily, both internally and using outside inspection resources.

In the beginning days of the ICBM force, we struggled to keep complex, hard to maintain, first generation, inherently dangerous systems like Atlas and Titan I on alert. Sometimes, we couldn’t meet the standards of the number of missiles on alert just because we had systems that wouldn’t work as well as they were designed.

Sometimes, we failed as individuals, or teams, crews, or even units, because we are human beings, and we aren’t perfect, even though our goal is often perfection. But one of the reasons the system sets high standards and then tests and evaluates to them is to identify the weak spots or the improperly trained individual, find the cause, and fix the problem. We analyze failures, adjust programs and retrain and recertify people, and the mission gets done better.

Much has been written lately about the morale of the people who serve in the ICBM force. For those of us in the military, morale has always been a high priority topic. Every commander throughout history has faced some sort of problems with morale and for the most part has worked to solve them. The demands of the ICBM mission, an all volunteer force and the northern tier base locations combine to present some special morale challenges for today’s commanders and supervisors. By and large though our young ICBM professionals live up to their oath of office and understand the word “volunteer” doesn’t mean that one joins only to serve on a sandy beach in Florida or some big city near home.

Addressing the current concerns, Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James recently stated, “I want to reinforce that the vast majority of our airmen are working hard and with great pride every day. As for the challenges, we will address them. People will be held accountable. We didn’t get here overnight. I’m sure we won’t fix it overnight. But we will get there.” The Association of Air Force Missileers fully supports Secretary James in this effort. The American public has a right to demand high standards because they have entrusted those in uniform with the protection and survival of our nation. Those who serve today, from the top leaders down to the young officers who sit quietly on alert, and are tested and evaluated daily, to the young enlisted members who maintain, secure and support that force, sometimes on bright, warm days but often on the cold, windy northern plains of our country, do it well. They are working hard to resolve the problems that have most recently been identified. They will continue to carry out the quiet, nearly invisible mission of nuclear deterrence as long as necessary. We are proud of them and proud to be called Missileers.

(Simpson is Executive Director of the Association of Air Force Missileers)