Today, when we think about nuclear weapons, we think of rogue states such as Iran and North Korea. Or, perhaps, we worry about a terrorist attack here involving a nuclear weapon, such as the much-discussed “suitcase bomb.”
But several events in 2013 show we need to pay more attention to the safety and security of our own nuclear weapons.
In November, the U.S. Air Force relieved Maj. Gen. Michael Carey for “personal misbehavior” in a foreign country, namely excessive drinking, sexual escapades and gambling.
It later turned out that Carey was on assignment in Russia when he went on a bender. Of course, this wouldn’t be the first time a military official went off the rails in a foreign land.
But Carey isn’t just any general, he is the man responsible for 450 nuclear missiles at land stations across the U.S. He is an official responsible for safely maintaining our nation’s most destructive weapons and setting an example for the thousands of soldiers beneath him.
Only days after Carey was disciplined, the Navy demoted Vice Adm. Tim Giardina and relieved him of his post as second in command of U.S. nuclear forces.
Giardina was accused of using fake gambling chips at a casino in Iowa.
All this follows the publication of a book in 2013 by Eric Schlosser tracing incidents of nuclear mishaps back to the 1940s.
The list of accidents is remarkably long and includes nuclear bombs inadvertently dropped over the U.S. or destroyed in accidents. A variety of other nuclear weapons have been lost at sea.
Schlosser concentrates his book on an incident that happened in 1980 in a missile tube near Damascus, Ark., when a technician accidentally dropped a wrench, which fell 80 feet before piercing the missile’s fuel tank.
The area was evacuated and the rocket eventually exploded, throwing its massive warhead about 100 feet from its tube. Amazingly, the device did not explode or release radiation.
Schlosser makes the point that the U.S. has courted nuclear disaster any number of times over the past 60 years, sometimes escaping either by luck or God’s grace.
This track record is even more frightening when we consider that India, Russia, Pakistan and North Korea also maintain nuclear warheads, but have even fewer resources for protecting and maintaining them.
But the problem in the U.S. should not be underestimated. In November, The Associated Press reported on burnout, low morale and “rot,” as one officer put it, inside the U.S. nuclear force.
As the U.S. and Russia gradually reduce their stockpiles of weapons, nuclear warfare is no longer seen as a viable career path for the military’s best officers.
Meanwhile, missile crews become bored from years of maintaining 24-hour shifts doing little more than staring at computer screens while monitoring the missiles in their charge.
Since missile-watching is not a desirable assignment, many of the nuclear crews are young and have been “volunteered” for a duty that more experienced soldiers do not want.
“It’s a real problem to keep those young men and women interested in going on alert three or four times a month for 24 hours at a time when it’s hard to explain to them who the enemy is,” a retired Air Force general told the AP.
“(The job) doesn’t have the allure that it did during the height of the Cold War when you felt like you were doing something important.”
The U.S. has more than 2,000 deployed warheads here and around the world.
The time has come to ask some hard questions about how many we really need and how we can best ensure their safety.
The opinions expressed in this column reflect the views of the ownership and the editorial board.