The Duck of Minerva

Why Reading Scott Sagan Scares Me.

8 May 2013

Over the years I’ve taught Scott Sagan and Charles Perrow for a range of different courses. Based on those two books, I’m pretty sure that I’d rather not read these two terms in the same sentence: “nuclear weapons” and “rot.” From this morning’s Washington Post:

The Air Force stripped an unprecedented 17 officers of their authority to control — and, if necessary, launch — nuclear missiles after a string of unpublicized failings, including a remarkably dim review of their unit’s launch skills. The group’s deputy commander said it is suffering “rot” within its ranks.

“We are, in fact, in a crisis right now,” the commander, Lt. Col. Jay Folds, wrote in an internal email obtained by The Associated Press and confirmed by the Air Force.

The tip-off to trouble was a March inspection of the 91st Missile Wing at Minot Air Force Base, N.D., which earned the equivalent of a “D” grade when tested on its mastery of Minuteman III missile launch operations. In other areas, the officers tested much better, but the group’s overall fitness was deemed so tenuous that senior officers at Minot decided, after probing further, that an immediate crackdown was called for.

The Air Force publicly called the inspection a “success.”

All of this “success” comes after a much publicized effort that began in 2008 to fix the problems of complacency, demoralization, and insubordination.

In 2008, then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates sacked the top civilian and military leaders of the Air Force after a series of blunders, including a bomber’s mistaken flight across the country armed with nuclear-tipped missiles. Since then the Air Force has taken numerous steps designed to improve its nuclear performance.

The email obtained by the AP describes a culture of indifference, with at least one intentional violation of missile safety rules and an apparent unwillingness among some to challenge or report those who violate rules.

Bruce Blair concludes that: “The nuclear air force is suffering from a deep malaise caused by the declining relevance of their mission since the Cold War’s end over 20 years ago,” Blair said in an interview. “Minuteman launch crews have long been marginalized and demoralized by the fact that the Air Force’s culture and fast-track careers revolve around flying planes, not sitting in underground bunkers baby-sitting nuclear-armed missiles.”

Look, I get it. Living under the tundra near Minot, North Dakota is not exciting. I grew up near there — we had eleven months of hockey and one month of bad ice. It can be a dark, cold, and depressing place. But, this is disturbing on so many levels. And, seriously, who gets a “D” these days? This is why reading Sagan can be so very scary….