In Helene Cooper’s New York Times piece published this Wednesday, “Nuclear Corps, Sidelined in Terror Fight, Produces a Culture of Cheating,” several former “missileers” offered justification for a recent spate of somewhat unsavory behavior among their ranks, to include a General’s drunken antics while on official visit in Moscow, violation of key security procedures, and a newly unearthed culture of cheating. The excuse? Excessively high standards maintained in a post 9/11 era which did not prominently feature a likely role for the American nuclear arsenal. Most tellingly, Mr. Brian Weeden, a former Air Force launch officer from Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana, was quoted as saying, “The mantra had always been that the nuclear deterrent would keep America safe. But it didn’t. So I felt, not only did we fail to deter those attacks, but we couldn’t do anything about it after.”
As a Marine officer, my branch of the service never has nor will have any part in the “nuclear triad” comprising our nation’s nuclear defense from the air, land, and sea. The closest link I can claim to our nation’s nuclear defense is an undergraduate course in nuclear thermodynamics and a few classmates who serve as junior officers in our submarine fleet; I definitely do not know the first thing about serving in a missile silo. I do know, however, that regardless of mission pertinence – something Mr. Weeden hugely (and incorrectly) undervalues about his own community – elite standards are an asset for leaders to ensure mission readiness, not an obstacle to be circumvented for appearance’s sake. As such, unethical compromise of standards is not a failure of mission applicability, but a failure of leadership.
As it stands, though, the claim that the nuclear deterrent failed to keep America safe from September 11th (and using it to justify slacking standards in the wake of declining morale) is akin to saying that mouse traps failed to rid a house of pests because a fly came in through the window. While the “classic” Soviet challenge has been removed, threat of nuclear war still hangs as a mushroom shaped cloud over the international arena. There exists an entire legitimate body of scholarship debating the effectiveness of nuclear deterrence (with Thomas Schelling as its father), but to dismiss even minimally deterrent nuclear arms as failing to deter a terrorist attack misses their point completely. Our nuclear stockpiles are primarily designed to deter other states – not individual actors – from attacking the United States (in a nuclear capacity or otherwise). Regardless of individual terrorist attacks, other nuclear states – not all friendly – still exist in the world. As such, the mission of our nuclear triad remains necessary.
Independent of the relevance of the nuclear corps’ mission, however, to blame excessively high standards, backed by “few carrots for rewards and far more sticks for retribution,” for a culture of cheating is sorely misguided. The stakes in a hypothetical nuclear exchange are undoubtedly higher than perhaps any other military mission, but soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines all train to missions of substantial gravitas, where expectations should be – and usually are – high. In these cases, no matter how many “sticks” are doled out for failure, it is incumbent upon the leadership in a given unit to enforce those high expectations. Not meeting such standards is one issue; deceitfully circumventing them is entirely another. To dishonestly sidestep those standards, at best, keeps a leader wilfully ignorant of his unit’s shortcomings, and, at worst, leaves our nation woefully underprepared.
Sunlight has obviously proven the best disinfectant for our missileers; individuals are being held accountable, and appropriate action being taken. More troubling is the emerging justification of mission inapplicability (no matter how misguided) for such behavior. Immediate threats to national security will constantly be in flux; leaders’ obligation to remain prepared while serving as moral and ethical reference points for their subordinates can never be.