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Senior Airman Alyssa M. Akers, Missileers review checklists on active duty at a launch facility associated with Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota, 2019, F.E. Warren Air Force Base, Public Relations

Issue Brief

Missileer Training

The 400 Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICMBs) that comprise the land-based portion of the U.S. nuclear triad of land, air, and sea are operated by around 90 specially trained Air Force officers, officially called Nuclear and Missile Operations Officers (13NX) but more widely known by their more colloquial title: “missileer.”

Missileers—generally in their mid-twenties—conduct their work 40-to-60 feet underground in Launch Control Centers (LCCs). It is in these trailer-sized capsules where they clock-in their 24-hour shifts in pairs of two. This “buddy-system” standard, known as Two-Person Control, ensures that one missileer is awake at all times and that no missileer can singlehandedly compromise a mission. Missileers are tasked with vigilant oversight of hundreds of U.S. nuclear warheads that are maintained on "hair-trigger alert," a U.S. military policy that ensures the maintenance of nuclear weapons in a ready-for-launch status, staffed by around-the-clock crews, and capable of rapid airborne deployment in minutes. The Cold War-era imperative to launch weapons before being hit by incoming Soviet warheads ensured retaliation and "mutually assured destruction"—which was seen as a deterrent to a Soviet first strike.

The missileer buddy system also ensures that, until any orders come, missileers have a way to stay busy. The paradoxical reality of missileers, like the nuclear missiles themselves, is that they are there so that we don’t use them. As such, other than a couple hours of alert-related tasks, the majority of a missileer’s time on duty is spent trying to find ways to pass time. Because of this reality, a 2010 unofficial survey of 99 missileers found that 71 had not chosen the assignment, and a comprehensive analysis reported by Air Force Times concluded low morale among the officials who are at the helm of the most destructive nuclear weapons arsenal in the world. To add, recent studies have shown that the court martial rate of missileers between 2011 and 2012 was double that of the rest of the Air Force due to, among other problems, cheating on proficiency tests and spousal abuse.

Missileers undergo rigorous training that prepares them to carry out complex launch procedures. Missileers engage in six months of intense training at the Vandenberg Air Force Base in Lompoc, California in written and simulated settings of missile flight, response protocol, classified intelligence processing, among other tasks before beginning their three-year tour. On the job, they continue training with a couple of sessions a month to stay in top form.

Of the four Air Force Bases (AFB) that currently operate ICBMs, the Francis E. Warren (FEW) AFB is of particular importance. In 1958, FEW-AFB, formerly a military training and prisoner of war camp called Fort Warren in WWII, became the first wing specializing solely in ICBMs. Spanning eastern Wyoming, western Nebraska, and northern Colorado, in 1963, after serious expansion projects, its 200 Minuteman I missiles and 12,600 square miles made it the largest ICBM unit in the United States and Europe. The same military unit assigned to FEW at its inception, the 90th Missile Wing, still operates there today, currently employing 3,000 military personnel and 660 civilian employees.

FEW’s missileers operate 150 missiles from 15 LCCs at the currently downsized 9,600 square-mile complex. Furthermore, FEW was the first base selected to be renovated under the Rapid Execution and Combat Targeting (REACT) modification program. As a result, with its LCCs being renovated for the first time since the 1960s, FEW and its missileers sit at the forefront of the U.S. nuclear weapons strategic command.

Sources

Congressional Research Service. “U.S. Strategic Nuclear Forces: Background, Development, and Issues.” RL33640. April 27, 2020. Accessed July 28, 2020.

Everstine, Brian. “Missileer are now Highest-paid Lieutenants Thanks to Bonuses.Air Force Times, January 20, 2015. Accessed July 28, 2020.

F.E. Warren Air Force Base. “90th Missile Wing.” February 27, 2018. Accessed July 28, 2020.

Hodge, Nathan and Sharon Weinberger. “The Ever-ready Nuclear Missileer.Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 64, no. 3 (2008): 14-21. Accessed July 28, 2020.

Law, Clint. “Here’s What It’s Like to Work in a 24-hour Nuclear Missile Launch Control Center.Business Insider, August 1, 2014. Accessed July 28, 2020.

Rappleye, Hannah, Stephanie Gosk, Courtney Kube, and Kevin Monahan. “The Missileers: Air Force has Trained 247 Women for Nuclear Launch.NBC News online. January 12, 2018. Accessed July 28, 2020.

Ricks, Thomas E. “Air Force Nuclear Missile Officers: Bored, Cranky, Frustrated—and Court-martialed.Foreign Policy, November 22, 2013. Accessed July 28, 2020.

Union of Concerned Social Scientists. "What is Hair-trigger Alert?" October 3, 2014. Accessed July 28, 2020.

Virginia Tech Corps of Cadets/Captain Aaron Bonovitch. “Life as a Missileer.” Fall 2016. Accessed July 28, 2020.

Warren ICBM and Heritage Museum. “History.” Accessed July 28, 2020.

Woolf, Amy F., for the Congressional Research Service. “Defense Primer: Command and Control of Nuclear Forces.” January 10, 2020. Accessed July 28, 2020.
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