In the late 1950s, America debated its first missile gap when civilian and military leaders asserted a quantitative difference in the Soviet and American nuclear arsenals. More than 50 years later, America is experiencing its second missile gap, this time between the land-based nuclear missile operators, or missileers, and the profession of arms to which they belong.
To close this latest missile gap, the answer is deceptively simple on one hand — reaffirm their connection to the profession of arms. On the other hand, it highlights a much more profound problem than the one faced in the late 1950s. This new gap suggests that the fabric of the profession of arms — the profession entrusted by the American people to master, manage and if necessary employ violence on their behalf — is fraying.
How did such a diagnosis emerge? Like an insidious illness, it took time for the problem to reveal itself. During the Cold War, America went to great lengths to create a vast, powerful strategic deterrent force. To ensure the responsible handling of these weapons, care was also taken to put them into the hands of military professionals imbued with an appreciation for what they did on behalf of the nation.
Because of the global dimensions of the Cold War, physical geography mattered little. Whether stationed on America’s great plains, operating at sea or in the air, these nuclear warriors were on the nation’s front lines.
With the end of the Cold War, some distance emerged between the nation and those performing the nuclear mission. Presidents put more emphasis on nuclear drawdowns than on averting imminent nuclear war. The US military, to the relief of many serving in it, refocused on the non-nuclear realm.
In most cases, military professionals moved seamlessly into this realm, because conventional and unconventional missions were more dynamic and rewarding than the nuclear mission. But the land-based missileers lacked the option to shift their focus.
Since 9/11, the professional distinction between the non-nuclear and the land-based nuclear missions grew vastly. Hundreds of thousands of military personnel deployed to fight in Iraq, Afghanistan or other demanding locations, spending months or even years in dangerous environments. They received the nation’s adulation, and in thousands of cases gave the last full measure of devotion.
Meanwhile, those in the missile fields sat — in America, in isolation, waiting to perform a mission the nation thought unlikely at worst and impossible at best.
Systemic, non-professional behavior by some missileers while on duty suggested de facto questioning of their ties to the profession of arms. Implicitly, they started to ask: What does it mean to belong to a profession where our expertise is never used? How can we belong to a profession when, rather than operating in a dangerous environment, we are among the most protected people in the world?
Individuals volunteer for the military to accept a special trust from the nation to manage organized violence on its behalf. These missileers were distanced over time from this public trust.
How to respond? Certainly, Air Force leaders’ efforts to re-evaluate incentive structures, training and testing are essential. However, the impact of these initiatives could well be short-lived absent a corresponding commitment to reconnect missileers to why they serve, what they do on behalf of the nation and why they are important members of the profession of arms.
But the challenges go well beyond the missileers’ unique circumstances and the authority of Air Force leaders to solve them.
In an integrated, connected 21st century world, the isolated, hierarchical culture of the profession of arms itself is changing. Military leaders need to acknowledge the changes and look to adapt and reinvigorate it across all of the services. Military members must not only retain a close connection to their unique responsibilities in a violent realm, they must understand and embody the values of responsibility and expertise their profession demands.
So addressing this new missile gap is a challenge that belongs collectively to the military leadership and requires a profound appreciation for how to build and sustain a robust military culture in the 21st century. This level of introspection has not occurred for at least a decade and perhaps since the end of the Cold War.
Nuclear missile operators reflect something existential occurring in the profession of arms. They foreshadow what happens when the military profession loses its essential connection to organized violence and its professional values. The missileers have been singled out, but a deeper examination could reveal similar disconnects for many in uniform.
As the nation enters a new interwar period, military leaders must see these latest revelations for what they are: a profound cultural weakening in the profession of arms rather than an isolated missile or nuclear problem. ■
Paula Thornhill is a retired US Air Force brigadier general and a senior political scientist at the nonprofit, nonpartisan Rand Corp.