The men and women who are entrusted with the keys to the nation's 450 intercontinental ballistic missiles, each with at least one nuclear warhead capable of inflicting mass destruction halfway around the globe, are among the youngest officers in the Air Force. They are mostly 20-something lieutenants and captains, a generation removed from the Cold War years of a nuclear standoff with a Soviet Union that no longer exists.
Their competence is not in question, only their motivation in a job that some see as unrewarding and overly stressful. Also in question is the quality of leadership by the generals above them, some of whom never did ICBM launch duty.
Loren Thompson, head of the Lexington Institute, a defense-oriented public policy advocacy group, said he thinks part of the problem may be the "diminished status" of the nuclear mission in the post-Cold War era.
"Although missile forces remain crucial to deterring nuclear attack, they are no longer seen as a prestigious assignment in the Air Force," he said. He noted that in 2008, then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates expressed worry about stewardship of the mission.
"This suggests these latest problems are part of a broader pattern," Thompson said.