Several weeks ago, Secretary Chuck Hagel called for reviews of the U.S.’s nuclear forces and in doing so, emphasized the need for a closer examination of the structure and conduct of its personnel. These reviews have been ordered in response to a number of recent scandals associated with nuclear armed forces in recent months, including a cheating scandal on the Air Force’s monthly nuclear proficiency exam, as well as Major Gen. Michael Carey’s dismissal from his supervisory role over intercontinental ballistics missiles after gross misconduct and binge drinking while on an official trip to Moscow.
Both of the incidents referenced above have led Hagel to call for a review to re-examine the culture within the nuclear armed forces. As the Pentagon’s Press Secretary John Kirby stated in his recent press release:
“Secretary Hagel believes it is time for the Department of Defense as a whole to place renewed emphasis on examining the health of the nuclear force, in particular those issues that affect the morale, professionalism, performance, and leadership of the people who make up that force.”
The reviews will be conducted in two parts, the first of which will be conducted by Hagel and a number of other “key stakeholders in the nuclear enterprise” who will convene to identify and then find remedies to “gaps and problems” to the growth and development of nuclear arms personnel.
Afterwards, assessment of their action plan will be made by an independent group and will focus on an “ examination of the strategic deterrence enterprise as it relates to personnel more broadly.” Hagel asked for the results within 90 days after the press release.
While the 90 day mark has yet to be reached, the secretary of the Air Force, Deborah Lee James, released a statement last thursday saying that the Air Force fired nine people and received the resignation of one Air Force commander as a result of the cheating scandal. In her statement, Deborah Lee James has also acknowledged cultural issues within the Air Force’s Nuclear force:
“We do have some systemic issues in our missile community. So indeed, there are cultural issues here. I certainly picked up on spotty morale and micromanagement issues at all of the bases, and so did those who participated in our follow-on reviews.”
When reviewing the Nuclear force personnel, it is appropriate and laudable that Hagel calls for an extensive evaluation of “the health” of the nuclear force. But perhaps it is also necessary to reconsider our nuclear mission in the context of other threats to national security in today’s political landscape. The type of reevaluation I am advocating for is not only a debate on whether we should decrease the nuclear arsenal, nor what Press Secretary James’ calls a “reinvigoration of core values” across the Air Force. While such a debate and reaffirmation of the importance of integrity is critical for moving forward, a reevaluation of the U.S. nuclear mission should consider the context of nuclear arms in a day and age where most mass threats to humanity have taken more intangible, indirect forms like government surveillance, drones strikes, and sarin gas. More simply put, the threat of nuclear war does not have a preeminent status within the public discourse and imagination, both within the States and abroad.
To be sure, the Air Force’s investigation into the moral and cultural top officials emphasized throughout their reports that the public is not in danger from any mishandling of the nuclear weapons from its own military, but maybe it is because personnel no longer feel such threat is the very reason why these past scandals have occurred. The U.S. Defense Department, the Nuclear Arms personnel, and the American public, then, must seriously start asking questions of what to do with the nuclear arms mission in the context of the recent scandals and the state of international relations today.
Irene Shin, Contributing Author