Hardly a week passes these days without news of another ethical lapse in the American military: Naval officers charged with selling information on ship movements to foreign contractors; an Army general on trial for sexual assault; a recruiting incentives program that was widely misused ... the list seems endless.
But few are as concerning as the apparent rot in the Air Force’s nuclear missile arm. Dozens of officers have been relieved of their duties in recent weeks as a pattern of recreational drug use and cheating on proficiency exams emerges.
Morale is an important component of self-discipline, and there are inherent issues in the missile program. We are talking, after all, about people carefully trained in weaponry that no sane person ever wants used, stationed in remote places, sidelined in the war on terror and suspicious that their branch of the service is scheduled for extinction. It’s a recipe for apathy, turnover and slipshod behavior.
These issues have been known in the Air Force for years, and possible solutions have been bandied about, but never installed, for at least five years. Among those proposals are incentive pay; ribbons, medals and other forms of recognition; a formalized system of mentoring; and general improvement of conditions at the three intercontinental ballistic missile bases.
All may be helpful, but there is a deeper problem at the core of the morale/discipline issue: The sense that the ICBM program is obsolete, a giant relic of the U.S.-Soviet standoff that is now irrelevant in a geopolitical world more focused on tribalism than on superpower confrontation.
To fix what Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel terms “personnel failures,” the Pentagon needs to convince that personnel that what they do matters. If the officers in charge of the world’s most dangerous weapons don’t believe that, the rest is just window dressing.