November 29, 2023:
The U.S. Air Force is trying to develop the new LGM-35 Sentinel ICBM to replace the LGM-30 Minuteman III. It seemed to be a straightforward task but was not the case. The 35-ton Minuteman III has a max range of 13,000 kilometers and can carry up to three nuclear warheads. Each of the warheads can be programmed to hit a different target. Minuteman III has been the air force’s only land-based ICBM for many years. Sentinel was supposed to be ready for service by 2030, but that is now doubtful.
The problems with Sentinel began back in 2016 when the Air Force concluded that over two decades of problems with the efficiency and morale of the personnel (“missileers “) who maintain and operate the 450 Minuteman ICBMs were unresolved, but that modernizing the ancient missiles and launch facilities was proceeding as was a proposal to develop and build a replacement for the Minuteman III LGM-30 ICBMs.
The current Minuteman entered service in 1970, replacing earlier Minuteman and Minuteman II models. A more modern ICBM, the LGM-118 Peacekeeper, also known as the MX, was retired in 2005 after being negotiated away in the START II nuclear disarmament treaty. Peacekeeper entered service in 1986 and only 50 were built before the post-Cold War budget cuts and disarmament treaty requirements eliminated those. In 2010 it was agreed that a replacement for the aging Minuteman III was needed because a modernization program would only keep the LGM-30 viable until the early 2030s. Despite that do-or-die deadline it still took a decade of arguments over the design, number and timeline for the new Sentinel ICBM to conclude. One number did remain constant, that it would cost about $100 billion to replace existing Minuteman IIIs with similar Sentinels that will hopefully be easier to maintain and upgrade and will be ready on time. “Hopefully” because the past 20 years of big-ticket items of air force and navy procurement, notably the F-35 fighter, Ford class fleet carriers and littoral combat frigates, have been disasters. US military procurement ability is now questionable.
Getting Sentinel delivered on time was difficult because the first Sentinel launch was to take place by 2023 and be operational by 2029. By 2036 all 450 Minuteman IIIs were to be replaced by 609 Sentinel, with 400 installed in silos while the others were for spares and regular test launches. New maintenance facilities for Sentinel were to be ready then.
Given past performance in this area, few knowledgeable air force personnel expected these tight deadlines to be met. That meant the U.S. will be without some of its active-duty ICBMs for a while. At that point the new navy SSBNs (nuclear powered ICBM carrying subs) will be entering service, or not. This is not a prediction but part of a trend that began in the 1990s and has proved impossible to change.
Meanwhile billions are being spent each year to repair and replace aging components of Minuteman missiles. The air force justified the cost of the $100 billion Sentinel program by pointing out that current costs of maintaining Minuteman missiles would cost more than the Sentinel.
There were similar problems with the leadership and personnel of the ICBM force. Since the 1990s there have been growing problems with the leaders, support personnel and launch crews of the three brigade-size air force units called Wings. The Wing personnel live and work in the upper-Midwest bases containing the underground silos and above ground living and working facilities for those who guard, operate and maintain these Minuteman missiles. These problems largely stayed out of the news until, after 2001 the problems got worse, and the media picked up on and published a growing number of stories about sloppiness handling nuclear warheads and the missiles themselves. The air force leadership kept telling an impatient Congress that solutions were being implemented. More senior officers, in addition to lower ranking personnel, were found to have failed to do their jobs and were often dismissed. Nothing seemed to work, and the situation got worse.
By 2016 it was clear that one major reason the problems persisted was because so much of the equipment on these missile bases was so old that many components were no longer made, and the shrinking air force budget could not meet demands for expensive improvisations. As a result, the missile bases are considered a bad assignment because so much stuff was ancient and breaking down. All this was made worse by the post-Cold War air force leadership stressing zero defects, micromanagement and political correctness. Such attitudes made matters worse at the missile bases. These problems made it particularly difficult to admit that they were part of a larger problem. Morale among officers and airmen was low and staying low because despite the headlines about fixing the problem, and things got worse, especially when it came to living and working conditions in these rural bases. The problems were particularly harsh during cold weather, which in this area, near the Canadian border, have always been a challenge.
The problems got so bad after 2010 that some officers were punished for being too harsh in their efforts to improve discipline and performance of subordinates. While Air Force commanders want discipline and performance improved in the missile forces, it must be achieved in a politically correct manner. A 2016 analysis of the situation concluded all of this had become a major part of the problem and a massive obstacle to any solutions.
After a few years studying the problem the air force concluded there was apparently a breakdown in training and leadership at each ICBM squadron, which controls 50 silos and each wing which controls three squadrons. Air force leadership also believed that there is still an attitude problem among those who maintain and operate the ICBMs.
Launch officers are the ones who live with and launch ICBMs. Two launch officers’ control 10 silos. each silo containing an ICBM. These two officers work 24 hour shifts to monitor the readiness of those missiles and, if they receive orders, both must agree to launch their missiles. Each pair of launch officers is in a separate command capsule underground bunker and five of these bunkers are in the same area, each with 10 nearby ICBM silos. Each pair of launch officers can, if need be, take over control of another launch control team’s missiles if that launch team’s bunker is destroyed or put out of action.
The air force also had to deal with the fact that the launch officers were so bored that fewer officers are willing to take the job and many of those assigned to “missileer” duties suffered low morale, which expressed itself in a higher rate of getting into trouble and twice the court martial rate of the rest of the air force. There was more domestic strife at home. It’s been this way for decades but has gotten worse since the Cold War ended in 1991 and the likelihood that the nukes would ever be used diminished considerably. With low morale came sloppiness and that started to get noticed after September 11, 2001.
Problems with training, leadership, and attitude among nuclear weapons operators was first noted in the 1990s, after the Cold War ended. The problems have been getting more and more attention since 2010. Back in 2009 it became obvious that the situation was getting worse. That’s because twice that year the air force had to relieve the commander of a combat wing. One was a B-52 bomber wing while the other was a Minuteman ICBM wing. In the case of the ICBM wing two other senior officers were also relieved. One of them was in charge of the Wing Maintenance Squadron. In both cases the reason was "loss of confidence in his ability to command." That's the military code word for "too many little things have gone wrong, and you are making your bosses nervous."
There was some recognition of morale problems. That occurred when many older NCOs and officers, some of them now retired, pointed out the harmful impact of a major air force post-Cold War reorganization. In 1992 SAC (Strategic Air Command), which had control of air force nuclear bombers and missiles since 1946, was disbanded and the ICBMs, and their crews, were transferred to the new Space Command. SAC had long been the butt of many jokes, for being uptight and fanatical about security, discipline, and the myriad details for handling nukes. Everyone tolerated this because, after all, SAC had charge of all those nukes, heavy bombers, and ICBMs. When Space Command took over, they eased up on the tight discipline and strictness about procedure that had been the hallmark of SAC for decades. The old timers complained but many of the young troops liked the new, looser, attitudes and that led to relaxed standards and nothing good.
Among the many changes was one that now officers operating the ICBMs were no longer career "missileers," but Space Command people. Time that used to be spent on studying nuclear weapons security and missile maintenance issues was now devoted to subjects of more concern to Space Command, like satellites and communications. Standards fell and efficiency slipped. In 2005, the missile crews lost their Missile Badge and had it replaced with a generic Space Command badge. SAC was now but a memory.
One of the responses to the growing problems with handling and accounting for nuclear weapons was to impose the dreaded “zero tolerance/no defects” policy. That approach was already being recognized as counterproductive but, because nukes were involved, something had to be done and zero tolerance was the easy (although worst) way to deal with it. Now the air force finds itself with a morale and performance problem that has gotten worse. Despite studies showing that commercial firms had found ways to solve similar problems, the generals put in charge of the nuclear weapons have not, so far, accepted this as a solution and continued to insist that the problem is not as bad as it appears, even though it is, and that they have it under control, which they obviously don’t. The most senior air force management is somewhat aware of how this has gone off the rails but continues to have problems dealing with it.
This persistent problem resulted in an attempt to bring back the old SAC attitude. This is one of those rare cases where it was recognized that the Good Old Days were better, or in this case, meaner, tougher, more effective, and safer. In 2009 that led to the establishment of the Global Strike Command (GSC). This outfit would, as SAC once did, control all ICBMs and heavy bomber nuclear weapons and their delivery systems. This came after 16 years of trying to do without SAC. Bringing SAC back to life proved much more difficult than anyone thought. For one thing, sixty years ago commanders could do politically incorrect things as long as they got the job done. In the 21st century this sort of roughness is no longer tolerated.
The effort to revive the SAC era attitudes appears to have failed, but not for want of trying. In 2008, the air force brass reinstated the Missile Badge, for any missile crew member who belonged to a missile crew that was certified CMR. That meant they had passed some strenuous inspections to be declared Combat Mission Ready) The badge had been used for decades, until 2005, when it was withdrawn and replaced by the generic "Space Wings" of the Space Command. SAC, it turned out, had been coming back quietly for quite some time, both for the bomber units as well as the missile ones. But the new SAC was not nearly as efficient as the original SAC.
As the recent failures indicated, not everyone has gotten into the program. Among the new SAC people there were many who were still Space Command at heart. This is attributed to the fact that with the end of the Cold War in 1991, strategic nuclear weapons were no longer as crucial as they had been since the late 1940s. For decades the United States and the Soviet Union each had thousands of nuclear armed ballistic missiles and a few hundred bombers aimed at each other. That got the attention of people in SAC and encouraged everyone to concentrate. After 1991 the incentive was no longer there, and it is still not there. But when you are handling nukes, the old SAC fanaticism is still the best way to go.
But there was another problem. The air force has lost its appetite for improvising and coming up with practical solutions for any problems encountered. The officers and NCOs who staffed SAC in the early years were World War II veterans who understood the need to be quick and practical at detecting and fixing problems. They were replaced with a generation of Vietnam War vets but by the 1990s these were all gone, and solutions tended to be more bureaucratic and cover your ass than practical. So, while the SAC attitudes may be back, the mentality that made those hard-ass attitudes motivate people are not there. It turned out it was all an attitude problem, and it was the senior leaders who were most responsible. Still no sign of a fundamental change and out on the northern prairie airmen still struggle to make a broken system work. That may change as the air force prepares to carry out major upgrades and refurbishment of ICBM silos to accommodate the new Sentinel ICBM. Since the Sentinel is behind schedule these silo upgrades will be delayed and no one is sure for h0w long. This sort of thing does nothing to improve morale among the air force personnel involved. In this respect the tradition of low morale in the silo fields continues.