Rachel Maddow hosts MSNBC’s “The Rachel Maddow Show” and writes a monthly column for The Post.
The major general “was visibly agitated about the long delay” at the airport, the witness said. “He appeared drunk and, in the public area, talked loudly about the importance of his position as commander of the only operational nuclear force in the world and that he saves the world from war every day.” The inspector general’s report quoted the witness as saying that upon arriving in Moscow, “again, he started in on the very loud discussions about being in charge of the only operationally deployed force and saving the world . . . and then he also started telling the story of about how he has the worst morale of any airmen in the Air Force.”
Those drunken pronouncements, as well as some gallivanting with a couple of nice ladies he met in a Moscow bar, and something about a woman from a Russian cigar shop who wanted to stay up all night talking physics, were enough for the general in charge of the United States’ nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles to lose his job in October.
Even though he’s gone (and so, hopefully, people in Russian hotels are no longer hearing about our morale issues in slurred shouts from the man in charge), the men and women responsible for America’s nuclear missiles are still in trouble when it comes to morale — and a lot more. The recent firings or demotions of top nuclear command flag officers, failed readiness tests, an investigation into widespread cheating on tests by launch officers, a major drug probe among those same officers — this is not the desired workplace record of the folks who are supposed to get a nuclear missile into the air within two minutes of the president’s launch order.
The Pentagon just announced plans to shrink the Army to a size smaller than at any point since World War II; the “sequester” cuts that Congress voted for in 2011 demanded an even smaller force, but the Defense Department and the Obama administration are pushing back on that. They also want a larger Marine Corps than the sequester dictates and to increase the number of Special Forces — but the overall direction is still a smaller force.
This is no surprise: As we wind down the longest war in American history — fought alongside another of our longest wars — no one reasonably expects that the U.S. military would stay, indefinitely, on the same footing. The Pentagon’s requested cuts would mean no more A-10 Warthogs, saying goodbye to our U-2 spy planes in favor of Global Hawk drones and 20 fewer Littoral Combat Ships for the Navy. And as for the Ground Combat Vehicle, the tank of the future — that future will have to wait.
How is it, though, that we’re cutting all those things yet keeping the full complement of 1970s-era nuclear missiles in silos in Wyoming, North Dakota and Montana?
Like the drunk general said, those intercontinental missiles are an operationally deployed nuclear force. They’re not in silos for storage; they are ready to fly. But do we really believe the general’s drunken boast that those hair-trigger missiles are saving the world from war every day? Even if there is a scenario in which a threat to the United States is best handled by us firing off hundreds of nuclear weapons, B-2 bombers and Trident submarines could handily launch such weapons at any attacker on the planet who is kind enough to provide us with a return address. As Vladimir Putin considers his options in Crimea, do we really think he feels his decisions are constrained by our nuclear weapons . . . but not the ones on U.S. military planes or submarines, only the ones underground in Montana?
If we’re thinking about places to cut the budget without hurting national security and military readiness, our ground-based missiles — those missiles on the high plains — are blinking red for attention.
Although no one has had to prevent an accidental missile launch by parking an armored vehicle on top of the silo doors since the 1980s (true story), we’re just not doing a great job handling the responsibility of those Minuteman 3s. And we’re not so much failing as succumbing to inevitability: In the absence of any realistic mission in which those missiles would be used, maintaining morale and 100 percent error-free rigor over decades is an almost existentially impossible challenge.
The real failure here is political: Civilian decision-makers need to make the call about the overall U.S. security strategy and the prioritization of military spending. At a time of cuts and reorganization, when hard decisions must be made about what to save and what to let go, continuing to throw billions of dollars down those silos is a failure of accountability and a failure to be realistic about what kind of wars we might conceivably fight in the future.
Initial reporting on the Pentagon’s proposed cuts described the goal of “a military capable of defeating any adversary, but too small for protracted foreign occupations.” After years of Iraq and Afghanistan, we don’t want protracted foreign occupations anymore, so we’re planning for a military future without them. Unless someone wants or expects an exchange of hundreds of nuclear-tipped land-based intercontinental missiles with Russia in our future, it is nonsense for us to keep planning for that, decade after decade, at such high cost and with so much risk.