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Human fallability and maintaining nuclear weapons

Last week Brig. Gen. Les Kodlick released an article on WyomingNews.com with the title “Nuke forces aren’t as bad as reporter said”. The text directly answers on a recent story of Robert Burns in which the AP reporter refers to an unpublished RAND study about a “Occupational Burnout and Retention of Air Force Distributed Common Ground System (DCGS) Intelligence Personnel“.

BG Kodlick promotion

The study was initiated by the Air Force Leadership and mental health providers to answer two policy questions about whether there is sufficient reason to be concerned about occupational burnout among DCGS intelligence personnel and what could be done if these concerns exist.

According to the AP article the three-month study reveals “a toxic mix of frustration and aggravation, heightened by a sense of being unappreciated, overworked, micromanaged and at constant risk of failure” as well as indications for what can be termed as a burnout syndrome.

Director of Air Force public affairs at the Pentagon Brig. Gen. Les Kodlick accused the AP reporter of omission and exaggeration of the study’s results. His main points are that the small sample size of the data was misleading and that the reporter ignored provided results from surveys which showed unit morale would be comparable to other units across the Air Force (no further sources about these surveys added).

The fact that the willingness of the intelligence personnel to participate in the study was very low leads to a limitation of the research’s conclusions. But nevertheless there were initial points to commission the study – and its results will necessarily lead to further research.

There is some evidence for being concerned about the nuclear weapons maintenance, as another article called “Another nuclear stumble by Air Force raises doubts” of Robert Burns showed earlier this year:

In August 2013, the head of nuclear air forces, Lt. Gen. James M. Kowalski, revealed to the Associated Press  failures committed by the 341th Missile Wing at Malmstrom Air Force Base, Montana in a “surety” inspection.

The purpose of these inspections are a formal check on the unit’s adherence to rules ensuring the safety, security and control of nuclear weapons.

According to Kowalski cited by the AP, a “team of relatively low-ranking” airmen “did not demonstrate the right procedures”, adding that “this did not call into question the safety or control of nuclear weapons at Malmstrom”. The tests would ensure that no nuclear weapon is accidentally, inadvertently, or deliberately armed or launched without presidential authority.

Robert Burns from AP mentions three failed inspections since 2008 which lead to a removing of 17 officers from launch control duty as a consequence – and in June to the dismissal of the commander in charge of training and proficiency of missile crews at Minot Air Base, N. D. by a “loss of confidence” in his leadership.

“The trouble at Minot was the latest in a longer series of setbacks for the Air Force’s nuclear mission, highlighted by a 2008 Pentagon advisory group report found a “dramatic and unacceptable decline” in the Air Force’s commitment to the mission, which has its origins in a Cold War standoff with the former Soviet Union.”

High peak of the nuclear embarrassments was the dismissal of the top two Air Force officials by then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates after a inadvertent transport of nuclear weapons:

“Gates made clear that most troubling was that the inquiry showed how little had been done by the Air Force to improve the security of the nuclear weapons infrastructure after it was disclosed last year that a B-52 bomber had flown across the United States without anyone realizing it was carrying six armed nuclear cruise missiles.” (Read Article by Thom Shanker: Gates fires 2 top Air Force officials over nuclear mistakes”)

 Another incident was the sending of helicopter batteries to Taiwan – which turned out a year and a half after the mistaken shipment to have been four wrongly sent high-tech electrical nose cone fuses for Minuteman nuclear warheads.

The Air Force had to react and the creation of Gen. Kowalski’s command in 2009 was a part of an effort to fix the security problems in the Air Force. According to him, the inspections were difficult so occasional failures would not point to a systemic failure to adhere to safety and security regulations.

 But again it is an article of AP reporter Robert Burns that brings problems out of the underground command posts to daylight: “Nuclear officers napped with blast door open” shows a clear-cut violation of weapon system safety rules meant to be strictly enforced in keeping with the potentially catastrophic consequences of a breach of nuclear security. Of course, the blast door is just one of many layers of security in a nuclear launch base but it reveals an important point in maintaining nuclear weapons.

As a matter of course, that must be said, the intelligence personnel has a stressful and difficult job to do and a big amount of responsibility they shoulder. There shall be a accusation neither of their work nor of their moral in the following lines.

But since more than twenty years Cold War is over and we are nowadays living in a globally encompassing world. So we are (hopefully) aware of a certain connectivity between humans all around the globe and the consequences of using nuclear weapons would affect everybody.

The spirit of time has changed and the people aren’t lead anymore by the everyday fear of an evil enemy threatening our lives.

Robert Burns also concludes:

“The willingness of some launch officers to leave the blast door open at times reflects a mindset far removed from the Cold War days when the U.S. lived in fear of a nuclear strike by the Soviet Union. It was that fear that provided the original rationale for placing ICBMs [Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles] in reinforced underground silos and the launch control officers buried in capsules – so that in the event of an attack the officers might survive to launch a counterattack. Today the fear of such an attack has all but disappeared and, with it, the appeal of strictly following the blast door rule.”

Nevertheless, as former ICBM launch control officer Bruce Blair says, violations of such rules should be taken seriously.

What makes the whole nuclear force vulnerable is as a matter of fact the very nature of human fallibility as Professor and Head of Psychology Division of Karolinska Institute at Stockholm Marianne Frankenhaeuser explains:

“Technical systems are designed on the assumption that human performance remains intact during crisis. Likewise, decision-making bodies operate on the assumption that their ability to make rational decisions is maintained under conditions of crisis. Contrary to both these assumptions, psychological evidence shows that emotional stress and time urgency impair performance and endanger the rationality of decision making in both individuals and groups. These psychological facts, combined with the decreasing time margins imposed by modern weapon systems, make the risk of a nuclear war by mistake a very real one.” (Full article accessible online)

Needless to say that one should not forget to consider the possibility of political power games on the internal governmental level that is a concomitant phenomenon of human behaviour as well.


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