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Nuke missile duty: 'It weighs on your mind'

Jul. 9, 2014 - 05:36PM   |  
Andy Parthum, Olver Parsons
In this photo taken June 24, 2nd Lt. Oliver Parsons, right, and 1st Lt. Andy Parthum check systems in the underground control room where they work a 24-hour shift at an ICBM launch control facility at Minot Air Force Base, N.D. The crew is responsible for controlling and launching the 10 nuclear-tipped Minuteman 3 missiles located in remote launch sites under their command. (Charlie Riedel / AP)
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BERTHOLD, N.D. — 1st Lt. Andy Parthum spends his workday 60 feet below ground awaiting the order he hopes never arrives: to launch the most powerful weapon ever devised by man. He is a nuclear “missileer” — an airman who does his duty not in the air but in a hole in the ground.

On both counts — the possibility of firing weapons that could kill millions, and the subterranean confinement — a missileer lives with pressures few others know. It’s not active combat, although the Air Force calls them combat crew members. Yet no one can exclude the possibility, remote as it may be, that one day a president will deliver the gut-wrenching order that would compel a missileer to unleash nuclear hell.

“Absolutely, it weighs on your mind,” Parthum, 25, said on a recent afternoon at Juliet-01, a Minuteman 3 missile launch site on a small patch of prairie 9 miles from the village of Berthold and about 25 miles west of Minot Air Force Base, whose 91st Missile Wing controls 150 of the nation’s 450 Minuteman missiles.

It may come as a surprise to some that the Air Force still operates intercontinental ballistic missiles, or ICBMs. And therein lies part of the problem for missileers, who feel underappreciated in a military that has long since shifted its main focus to fighting small wars, striking with unmanned drones and countering terrorism and cyberattacks.

Parthum, however, says he takes pride in his role.

“It’s sobering. It’s not something that’s taken lightly by anybody,” Parthum, a native of Centreville, Virginia, said as he and his crewmate, 23-year-old 2nd Lt. Oliver Parsons of Shawnee, Kansas, showed visitors around the small launch control center where they were several hours into a 24-hour watch over a group of 10 missiles.

It’s a sometimes tedious duty the Air Force calls “standing alert.” Some say their biggest challenge is staying alert.

Missileers, typically 22- to 27-year-old lieutenants and captains, work in pairs, with a relief crew arriving every 24 hours. A missileer generally does two “alerts” a week. It was Parthum’s 118th. (He keeps track.)

It’s not hard to see why some missileers find it hard to adjust to life under the prairie. An 8-ton blast door seals their launch control center from a potential incoming nuclear detonation. Twice last year launch officers were disciplined after admitting they left the blast door open while a crewmate was asleep — a security violation. That and other lapses in discipline, training and leadership were documented by The Associated Press over the past year, prompting Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to declare that “something is wrong.”

The ICBM launch control center is actually two separate structures. An outer protective shell is made of reinforced concrete lined with a steel plate. A smaller, box-like enclosure where the missileers work, eat and sleep is suspended inside the protective shell by pneumatic cylinders called “shock isolators” attached to the shell’s ceiling by heavy chains; the isolators are designed to keep the space stable in the event of a nuclear blast.

These underground command posts have changed relatively little since they were built in the early 1960s, although the Air Force recently committed to refurbishing them to make a missileer’s life a bit easier. Juliet-01, the command post an AP reporting team was permitted to visit, had just been repainted and spruced up to remove corrosion caused by water intrusion, giving it what one officer called “that new car smell.”

The launch center is accessible only from an above-ground building that resembles a small ranch-style home. An access shaft descends from a vestibule inside the building, which is controlled by a security team and surrounded by alarms and a chain-link fence.

Nuclear weapons duty is a deadly serious business, but it’s not without room for a pinch of missileer humor. A patch on the green leather seat from which Parthum monitors a computer console linked electronically to each of his 10 Minuteman 3 missiles offers these pithy phrases: “This Round’s On The House,” and “Party Til You Nuke.”

In fact, the U.S. has never fired an ICBM, other than for flight testing. Their stated purpose is to help deter nuclear war by convincing a potential attacker that it would have more to lose than to gain.

ICBM duty is far removed from the glamor, guts and glory associated with the Air Force. It not only falls short of the derring-do image of a fighter or bomber pilot streaking across enemy skies, it requires sitting, unseen and largely unappreciated, in a stuffy capsule to baby-sit missiles.

Upward of two-thirds of missileers were “volunteered” for the job after gaining their officer commission. Once they complete basic ICBM training at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, they are sent on four-year tours to one of three missile bases: Minot, Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana, or F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming.

The responsibility is enormous, the cost of mistakes potentially colossal, ranging from environmental damage to inadvertently triggering a nuclear war.

That is why the Air Force has long-established rules, procedures and backup safety systems to minimize the possibility of a major error. Over time, with the passing of the Cold War, the Air Force lost focus on its nuclear mission.

It also lost a good deal of what remained of the allure of serving as a missileer.

“Even during the Cold War while facing down the Soviets, it could be difficult to convince bright young airmen that what they were doing was worthwhile,” Robert W. Stanley II wrote in a research paper in 2011 before becoming vice commander of the 341st Missile Wing at Malmstrom. Last year he was promoted to commander there but resigned in March 2014 amid a scandal over exam cheating among his missileers.

In his paper, “Reviving a Culture of Disciplined Compliance in Air Force Nuclear Operations,” Stanley called for missileer incentive pay.

“In trying to demonstrate that nuclear duty is not a dying career field, and one worthy of top personnel,” he wrote, “no message could be more tangible than monetary reward.”

The Air Force is heeding that advice. Starting in October, it will offer entry bonuses to newly trained missileers, as well as “duty pay” for security forces, missileers and others who operate in the missile fields. A nuclear weapons service medal also will be offered as part of an intensified effort to make the career field more attractive.

Brian Weeden, who served as a missileer at Malmstrom from 2000-04, said management changes are badly needed.

“I think the high level of micromanagement by the leadership has contributed to the recent challenges the ICBM world has had,” he said. “When individuals’ slightest actions are scrutinized or controlled by others, that reduces the level of responsibility they feel and can lead to not caring.”

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