WASHINGTON -- Trouble inside the Air Force's nuclear missile force runs deeper and wider than officials have let on.
An unpublished study for the Air Force cites "burnout" among launch officers with their fingers on triggers of 450 weapons of mass destruction as well as evidence of broader behavioral issues across the intercontinental ballistic missile force, including sexual assaults and domestic violence.
The study, provided in draft form to The Associated Press, says court-martial rates in the ICBM force in 2011 and 2012 were more than twice as high as in the overall Air Force. Administrative punishments, such as written reprimands for rules violations and other misbehavior, also were higher in those years.
Concerned about heightened levels of misconduct, the Air Force directed RAND Corp., the federally funded research house, to conduct a three-month study of work conditions and attitudes among the men and women inside the nuclear missile force. It found a toxic mix of frustration and aggravation heightened by a sense of being unappreciated, overworked, micromanaged and at constant risk of failure.
Remote and rarely seen, the ICBM force gets little public attention. But this year, the AP has documented a string of missteps that call into question the management of a force that demands strict obedience to procedures.
The AP was advised in May of the confidential study, shortly after it was completed, by a person who said it should be made public to improve understanding of discontent within the ICBM force. After repeated inquiries, and shortly after AP filed a Freedom of Information Act request for an outline, the Air Force provided it last Friday and arranged for RAND officials and two senior Air Force generals to explain it.
Based on confidential small-group discussions last winter with about 100 launch officers, security forces, missile maintenance workers and other missile field workers, plus responses to confidential questionnaires, RAND found low job satisfaction and workers distressed by staff shortages, equipment flaws and what they felt were stifling management tactics.
It also found what it termed "burnout." Burnout in this context means feeling exhausted, cynical and ineffective on the job, according to study lead author Chaitra Hardison, RAND's senior behavioral scientist.
One service member said, "We don't care if things go properly. We just don't want to get in trouble." That person and all others who participated in the study were granted confidentiality by RAND in order to speak freely.
The 13 launch officers who volunteered for the study scored an average of 4.4 on a 7-point burnout scale, tied for highest in the group. Twenty junior enlisted airmen assigned to missile security forces also scored 4.4.
In its Cold War heyday, an ICBM force twice as big as today's was meant to deter the nuclear Armageddon that at times seemed all-too-possible amid a standoff with the former Soviet Union and a relentless race to build more bombs.
Today, the nuclear threat is no longer prominent among U.S. security challenges. The arsenal has shrunk in size and stature. The Air Force struggles to demonstrate its aging ICBMs' relevance in a world worried more about terrorism and cyberwar and accustomed to 21st-century weapons such as drones.
Andrew Neal, 28, who completed a four-year tour in September with F.E. Warren's 90th Missile Wing in Wyoming, where he served as a Minuteman 3 launch officer, said he saw marked swings in morale.
Mr. Neal says his generation has a different view of nuclear arms. "We all acknowledge their importance, but at the same time, we really don't think the mission is that critical," he said, adding that his peers see the full-scale nuclear war threat as "simply non-existent." So "we practice for all-out nuclear war, but we know that isn't going to happen."
Every hour of every day, 90 launch officers are on duty in underground command posts that control Minuteman 3 missiles. They await a presidential launch order that has never come in the more than 50-year history of U.S. ICBMs. The duty can be tiresome, with long hours, limited career-advancement opportunities and life constraints in remote areas of the north-central United States, such as Minot Air Force Base, N.D.
In his doctoral dissertation published in 2010, after he finished a four-year tour with the 91st Missile Wing at Minot, Christopher J. Ewing said 71 of 99 launch officers he surveyed there had not chosen that assignment.
Robert L. Goldich, a leading authority on defense and military personnel issues, reviewed the RAND findings and concluded that they show the effects of the perception that nuclear weapons have been "shunted off" to the sidelines of national priorities. RAND was looking for possible explanations for a trend worrying the Air Force: higher levels of personal and professional misconduct in the ICBM force relative to the rest of the Air Force. Courts-martial in the ICBM force, for example, were on a per capita basis 145 percent higher in 2012.