Minuteman II on static display at March Air Base Museum. Photo by James Ulvog.

On 3/10/22, Mr. Cole Smith attacked the integrity of U.S. Air Force officers pulling alert across the northern plain states as they monitor their ICBMs and maintain readiness to launch in the horrible event the President were to make the decision to do so.

He also attacked the safety and reliability of the missiles and warheads with an unsupported claim that

“…there have been more near-misses than the world knows.”

(Why is this discussion cross-posted from my other blog, Outrun Change? The only way we have so much political freedom, economic freedom, and religious freedom is that on the international stage, we have a powerful military to defend and protect those freedoms. This power pointedly relies heavily on nuclear weapons. On the national stage, our freedoms are defended and protected by the First and Second amendments to the Constitution. The Second Amendment is particularly relevant to guard the First.)

His support for attacking crew integrity is citation of a drug-incident involving 11 officers in 2013 and a test-cheating scandal involving 34 officers. Those are old reports (I won’t bother looking up date of the cheating incident) and well know to all.

Support for the more near-misses claim is an accident at Little Rock Air Force Base back in 1980. 

Um, that was 42 years ago.

The incident involved a Titan II ICBM. The Titans were liquid fueled. They have long since been retired with the last one pulled off alert in 1987.

All ICBMs (Minuteman III specifically), SLBMs, and ALCMs are solid-fueled. There are no liquid-fueled, nuclear tipped missiles in our inventory. What that means is you can poke holes in the missiles, throw wrenches at them all day long, and likely set a campfire under one of them without worrying one bit about causing a nuclear explosion. I don’t understand the chemistry involved, but I’ll guess you would have a difficult time getting the propellant to even burn.

Odds of getting a court martial for destroying a missile if you tried on of those stunts? Count on it.

Odds for setting off a nuke? Nope. No matter how hard you tried.

A repeat of even the Titan incident is quite impossible.

You may find Mr. Cole’s article at The GuardianI was a nuclear missile operator. There have been more near-misses than the world knows.

For a longer rebuttal to the claims by Mr. Cole, I will refer you to an email from Mr. James Warner, Executive Director of the Association of Air Force Missileers (AAFM). You may find AAFM at https://www.afmissileers.org.

A few comments before the letter.

I was a Missile Combat Crew Commander at Ellsworth Air Force Base. Worked in the Standboard shop for a little while.  For those who understand such things, I earned 5 HQs on check rides and have my well earned 15th Air Force patch on the wall of my office. I don’t know much, but I know a little about ICBMs.

For full disclosure, I am currently a member of AAFM.

I am aware of the incidents Mr. Cole discusses, as are most former missileers. I am not aware of other “near-misses” involving ICBMs, particularly Minuteman missiles. Good chance there are classified mishaps I would not know about, but I’m not aware of any.

Nukes are frightening.  I have said as much and urged our nuclear warriors to be diligent in safety and urged our political leaders to avoid releasing them if at all possible. See The horrible effects of nuclear weapons.

At the same time, I point out countries who hate us and hate our way of life have huge inventories of nukes.

Following letter to AAFM members from Mr. Warner is reprinted verbatim with his gracious permission. Due to length, the letter will not be put in quotation marks,

Mr. Warner writes:

Fellow Missileers:

The Association of Air Force Missileers is a non-profit dedicated to educating the public on the role of Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBMs) in our nation’s defense. A recent article in the Guardian by former missileer Cole Smith was a cause for alarm, not for what he said but rather for the non-factual data and misguiding information being published to the general public about our nation’s ICBM fleet and the men and women who operate, maintain, and secure those assets. Mr. Smith’s article, “I was a missile operator- there have been more near misses than the world knows” not only misinformed readers about the safety and security surrounding this critical nuclear mission but challenged the integrity of those who serve as members of our ICBM mission today.

The author, a previous Minuteman (MM) III Missileer, writes about the “dangers of nuclear weapons”. His journalistic effort cites events that happened to a Titan II system deactivated in 1987 and tries to make them applicable to the current MM III ICBM force. The Damascus event at the Titan II site in 1980 has been highly studied by current ICBM operators and maintainers, and we have learned from the mistakes of the past to prevent any issues in the present and future. In fact, the volatility of the liquid fuel system led to its retirement in favor of the much safer solid fuel MM system. Deactivation of the Titan II ICBM due to age and to allow for ICBM modernization was directed by Deputy Secretary of Defense Frank C. Carlucci in October 1981. It finally began in July 1982, and the last Titan II missile, located at Silo 373-8 near Judsonia, Arkansas, was deactivated on 5 May 1987. Anyone looking for more information on the Titan II system should check out the book Titan II: A History of the Cold War Missile Program by David Stumpf.

Not mentioned in Mr. Smith’s article is that all United States (US) nuclear weapons are designed to be “one point safe”. This safety design concept means that a nuclear weapon must have a probability of less than one in one million of producing a nuclear detonation if a detonation of the high explosives originates from a single point (as would likely happen in a crash or fire). For the Damascus incident, the one-point safe concept is why the warhead did not detonate, although Mr. Smith drastically describes it as “the warhead was thrown into the woods, disappearing into the night.” For more information on the Damascus incident, we invite readers to peruse Eric Schlosser’s book, Command and Control. This book contains a better understanding and data that Mr. Smith fails to reference.

(editor comment: I strongly recommend the mentioned book. It is superb.)

AAFM questions why the author or his editor would use the term “near misses” in the article’s title? The wording in the title intentionally misleads the reader into thinking that the ICBM force has most recently launched a missile and a near miss occurred…which, as MASH’s Colonel Potter would say is “horse pucky”.

Both the US Air Force and US Navy launches test missiles each year as part of our nation’s nuclear missile test program “to validate and verify the safety, security, effectiveness, and readiness of the weapon system-no ‘near misses’ there. In fact, the test program is also used to demonstrate to friend and foe alike that these missiles, pulled from our active force and launched with dummy warheads, are reliable and viable. The Secretary of Defense announced the cancellation of its most recent test launch at Vandenberg, due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Pentagon Press Secretary John F. Kirby made the following announcement during a press conference 2 Mar 2022: “…in an effort to demonstrate that we have no intention of engaging in any actions that can be misunderstood or misconstrued, the Secretary of Defense has directed that our Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile test launch scheduled for this week to be postponed,” Kirby said. “We did not take this decision lightly, but instead to demonstrate that we are a responsible nuclear power.”

Mr. Smith’s article asks the question “But what man or woman of integrity could possibly launch a nuclear weapon?” Maybe Mr. Smith is referencing the classic War Games movie scenario where military members are forced to turn keys. Prior to receiving their missile badge and being certified to perform their nuclear alert duties, every ICBM operator is required to learn about nuclear history and pass an exam on nuclear effects. Nuclear operators are trained in the employment of nuclear weapons, blast effects, height of burst, and yield. The awareness and implications of launching a nuclear weapon are taught to operators from day one. Additionally, ICBM operators are also screened as part of the Personnel Reliability Program (PRP) to insure they are aware of the implications of launching nuclear weapons, and that they are capable of doing their duties.

Missileers understand, more than most, the gravity of using nuclear weapons, but they are also taught that the weapons are not going to go off at random, nor are they going to be launched without proper consideration of the strategic situation by the President and the National Command Authorities. Additionally, there are safeguards and inspections built into the procedures and processes of the weapon system so that incidents do not happen. A nuclear weapon is significantly safer than the numbers that Mr. Smith references and has maintained strategic stability for over 70 Years. 

Mr. Smith served 2012-2017 as a missile operator, meaning he signed on to the use of nuclear weapons and accepted the fact that he would launch given a valid Presidential order. Yet, he is suddenly writing about the dangers of nuclear weapons. His question of integrity is an interesting one.  Is he questioning his own integrity when he was a Missileer? Or is he questioning the integrity of the entire ICBM crew force? Out of all of Mr. Smith’s misstatements, this one bother missileers the most. Like all of those who have served or are currently serving our country, Missileers took an oath to protect and defend the constitution of the United States of America.  Missileers are first and foremost AF members, where “Integrity First” is and will always be, a core value.

Sincerely,

Jim 

James F. Warner

Executive Director

(Thanks to Jim and AAFM for permission to reprint his email.)

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