WASHINGTON — The hundreds of nuclear missiles that have stood war-ready for decades in underground silos along remote stretches of America, silent and unseen, packed with almost unimaginable destructive power, are a force in distress, if not in decline.
They are still a fearsome superpower symbol, primed to unleash nuclear hell on a moment’s notice at any hour of any day, capable of obliterating people and places halfway around the globe if a president so orders.
But the number of intercontinental ballistic missiles, or ICBMs, is dwindling, their future defense role is in doubt and missteps and leadership lapses documented by the Associated Press this year raised questions about how the force is managed.
The AP revealed one missile officer’s lament of “rot” inside the force, and an independent assessment for the Air Force found signs of “burnout” among missile launch crews.
The AP also disclosed four ICBM launch officers were disciplined this year for violating security rules by opening the blast door to their underground command post while one crew member was asleep.
After one of the Air Force’s three ICBM groups failed a safety and security inspection in August, Republican Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said it was time for the Air Force to refocus on its ICBM responsibilities and “recommit itself from the top down” to safe nuclear operations. Air Force leaders said the nuclear mission already is a priority and the missiles are safe and secure.
The Congressional Budget Office on Friday estimated strategic nuclear forces would cost the Pentagon $132 billion during the next 10 years, based on current plans. That would include $20 billion for the ICBM force alone. It does not include an estimated $56 billion for the 10-year cost of communications and other systems needed to command and control the whole nuclear force.
At the core of the ICBM problem is the reality the U.S. sees less use for nuclear weapons and aims to one day eliminate them, possibly starting with the missiles. The trend is clear, advanced by President Barack Obama’s declared vision of a nuclear weapons-free world.