Friday, January 14, 2011

Today's Reading Assignment

A favorite patch of USAF missile launch crews (photo courtesy The Danger Room)

In the missile fields of Wyoming, Montana and North Dakota, death wears a Snuggie. John Noonan, a defense writer and policy adviser, previously served as a missile launch officer at F.E. Warren AFB, Wyoming. He described life in the launch complex in a recent column for the Danger Room:

At a small United States Air Force installation in eastern Wyoming, I’m sitting at an electronic console, ready to unleash nuclear hell. In front of me is a strange amalgamation of ’60s-era flip switches and modern digital display screens. It’s the control console for launching an intercontinental ballistic missile or ICBM.

On an archaic display screen in the center of the console, three large letters blink in rapid succession. “EAM inbound,” says my deputy commander and the second member of the launch crew. An emergency-action message is on its way, maybe from the Joint Chiefs of Staff, maybe from the Commander of U.S. Strategic Command, maybe even from the president. We both mechanically pull down our code books, thick binders swollen with pages of alpha-numeric sequences, and swiftly decipher the message.

After nearly four years of pulling ICBM-alert duty, this process is instinctive. I deliberately recite the encrypted characters to ensure my deputy is on the same page, literally and figuratively, as six short characters can effectively communicate a wealth of information through the use of special decoding binders. “Charlie, Echo, Seven, Quebec, Golf, Bravo, six characters ending in Bravo.” My partner concurs, scribbling in his code book.

“Crowd pleaser,” he adds without emotion, referring to a war plan that mandates immediate release of our entire flight of nuclear missiles, 10 in all.

Of course, this is just a training scenario. The coded orders are a simulation. The console is a mockup of the real thing, stowed away in a larger hanger and serviced seven days a week by a small staff of Boeing contractors.

But before a missileer can unleash Armageddon, he/she must be properly attired:

In a favorite missileer uniform patch, the Grim Reaper sits at an ICBM console, dressed in bunny slippers. In the real world, death wears a campus T-shirt, JCrew bottoms and the ubiquitous Snuggie. The silly blanket-robe hybrid is suited to the missile force, keeping an officer toasty while allowing him to interact with the weapons console unobstructed.

Missileers learn that on alert, comfort is as important as humor. One enterprising fellow liked to string a hammock between the two command chairs and stretch out for his long shifts at the console. Videogame systems are forbidden, a rule that was mocked until it got out that wireless Nintendo Wii controllers could cause the system to detect a false electromagnetic pulse attack and shut down.

I used to imagine that I’d have some sort of stiff-upper-lip moment should I receive “the order,” where I’d shed the Snuggie and slippers, zip up my flight suit, and make imperial references about “going out proper.”

A personal aside: when I was selected for commissioning by the Air Force back in the 1980s, I put missileer at the top of my officer job preferences. My rationale was simple: missiles offered early command experience and I could earn a free master's degree during my stint at Minot, Warren, Whiteman or the other "Garden Spots" associated with missile duty.

Of course, Rule #1 of military service is "Be careful what you wish for," and Rule #2 is "Don't volunteer for anything." Apparently, the Air Force was a little leery of anyone that anxious to be a missileer. So, when my assignment came down, I discovered I was bound for intel, and not missile duty.

Later, I discovered how fortunate I was. Most of my OTS instructors were missileers. Even at that point--with Minuteman, GLCM and Titan all on-line--the future for the career field looked bleak, and many wound up serving out their careers in other AFSCs. Intel turned out to be a fortuitous choice and I spent the rest of my career as a spook--a job I truly enjoyed.

Still, I've always had the greatest respect for missileers. Their mission represents the ultimate guarantee of our national security and besides, they're right up there with fighter jocks in terms of their own, unique culture, as illustrated by the following, true-life stories.

Before the end of the Cold War, some of the drills/simulations were very realistic (some might say a bit scary), particularly if something unusual was going on among Russia's nuclear forces. One night at Whiteman, a Minuteman crew commander was convinced an alert was the real deal and became slightly flustered. In violation of every OPSEC principle (and most SAC regulations), the commander called the base command post and asked to be patched through to his wife at their home, even as he and the deputy crew commander worked through their launch authentications and checklists.

Roused from her sleep, the wife heard her husband scream: "Head for the hills, honey, it's World War III." He then hung up, fully expecting to unleash global thermonuclear war in the moments that followed. His wife, in the finest tradition of USAF spouses, called her best friend (the wife of another missileer), and she called someone else. Within a few minutes, there was a small convoy of frightened wives, children and pets heading out of Knob Noster and Warrensburg, Missouri, bound for the Ozarks. Needless to say, the missileer who started the panic never pulled another alert.

During another drill, a missile crew commander was more concerned about launching his missiles (and leaving this world) in the correct uniform. When the EAM came down, the commander and his deputy were sitting in their underwear because the launch complex's air conditioning was on the blink. "Where's my gun?" the MCC shouted, referring to the pistol that all crew members carried. "If I'm gonna die, I'm going out with my gun on." So, sure enough, he strapped on his pistol and holster over his tighty-whiteys and proceeded through the checklists.

And, as you might imagine, missile duty means the crew is responsible for a wide array of classified information, including secret codes and other COMSEC material. As an intel officer at a TAC base, I was assigned to perform an investigation of a fighter squadron adjutant who couldn't handle her squadron's COMSEC account. As I recall, the Deputy Commander for Operations let her off with a slap on the wrist (we eventually accounted for all of the COMSEC material), but made it clear that the Lieutenant needed to find a new vocation, and made a call to the USAF Personnel Center. Her next job in the Air Force? Missileer.

A tip of the hat to all those, past and present, who have stood watch "on the brink of man-made hell"--in their bunny slippers.

1 comment:

TOF said...

Since I'm older than you by some twenty years, my experience differs. First, I'm an aviator. For aviators who got missile assignments (for career broadening, they used to say) it was viewed as a kiss of death. Later in my career, in the SAC Airborne Command Post System, I discovered that most missileers came from support AFSCs such as supply and munitions. Those guys figured out that that their promotion potential was greatly enhanced if they got into an AFSC that involved a weapons system. ICBMs were the place to go.

Back in the mid-70s, when some of the early disarmament treaties with the Soviets had been hammered out, there were some rather scary situations. One I recall very clearly was a late night klaxon that put everyone in "get ready to launch" posture. I was in the SAC ABNCP system at the time and was on alert. When we heard the message come down it was really a page right out of a war training session. A few minutes later we got a message to return to normal alert posture.

Turned out that DSP had picked up a salvo launch out of an active Soviet missile field. First impact predictions were for Alaska and Canada. As the seconds ticked by it became clear that whatever was going on, it wasn't an attack. Finally, it became clear that several missiles were on their way to Kamchatka. The Soviets were complying with a segment of a disarmament treaty in the own special way: launching some missiles, sans nuke warheads of course, out of their operational silos. I heard later that the diplomats finally got them to stop doing that.