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The Indoctrination of Missile Launch Officers

In 1995 Russia mistook a US-launched weather rocket as an incoming nuclear missile. Although the US had notified the Russian Embassy of the launch, the news did not reach Russian missile defense officers who determined it was an incoming submarine-launched ballistic missile. All appeared to be in keeping with how a full-scale nuclear war would proceed: a single missile detonated high above the target area would limit or destroy the means of communications and full scale reprisal. Boris Yeltsin, president of Russia at the time, was given less than 5 minutes to decide whether to launch Russian missiles on warning.  He chose to not launch. In fact, based on current Russian and US official rules of engagement and policy, he was supposed to “launch on warning”, or “use them or lose them”.

Hundreds of Russian and American nuclear weapons sleep in silos and in nuclear submarines– fully-deployed– can be launched in literally seconds and once launched cannot be called back. These technical details follow written policy– “launch on warning”, which follows from ideas held by that nation’s leaders of what they believe their people want.

Most of us, understandably, hold on to the hope that if there was a miscalculation as in 1995 that our leader would have the good sense to do what is right for humanity. We hope that if an order was given, as it could have been in 1995, to a serviceman or woman to launch a nuclear weapon, that that person would have the common sense to simply refuse. Such would be the only hope for humanity.There is evidence that stronger stuff than hope is required to secure the American people. David Krieger, President of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation was able to obtain information used in the training of US Missile Launch Officers that provides a chilling look at how missile officers are indoctrinated to be ready to launch on warning, or whenever they are told. And yet there is a glimmer of hope: the questionable training presentation is currently under review to make sure it reflects “views of modern society”. In this, there is hope and a clue that the key to an end to nuclear weapons is the will of the people.  – Chris Theodore


The Indoctrination of Missile Launch Officers

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by David Krieger

The US Air Force has a history of indoctrinating its missile launch officers to assure that these officers will have no moral qualms about following orders to use weapons of mass annihilation. In a powerpoint presentation used in the training, the Air Force makes absurd arguments for the morality of war and the use of nuclear weapons. It includes numerous quotations from both the Old and New Testaments to make the case for the morality of war. For example, “Jesus Christ is the mighty warrior.” (Revelation 19:11)

The Air Force training acknowledges the devastation caused at Hiroshima and then raises questions for the young officers to contemplate, in seeking to assure that they are not hindered in their assignment to launch nuclear weapons if ordered to do so. Among the questions are those below with my own response to each of them in italics.

Can you imagine a set of circumstances that would warrant a nuclear launch from the US, knowing it would kill thousands of noncombatants? 

No, I can’t imagine such a circumstance, and with nuclear weapons, the number of civilians killed could reach far beyond thousands into the millions.

Can we exercise enough faith in our decision makers, political and military, to follow through with the orders given to us?

No, I can’t exercise such faith in our decision makers. I know, for example, that in my lifetime, US leaders have not always been honest and have led us into aggressive and illegal wars on false grounds.

Can we train physically, emotionally, and spiritually for a job we hope we never have to do?

Why not put our efforts where our hopes and our consciences are instead of training for a job that would cause untold death and suffering?

To accomplish deterrence, we must have the capability and the will to launch nuclear weapons. Do we have the will now? What about fifty years from now?

Deterrence has many flaws. The capability and the will to launch nuclear weapons are not sufficient to assure that nuclear deterrence will be effective. The will required is the will to massively slaughter innocent people. Nuclear weapons are immoral instruments and nuclear deterrence is an immoral doctrine that could result in mass annihilation. We profess to have the will to use nuclear weapons now, and I can only respond by continuing to work to assure that we will have moved beyond nuclear weapons and the theory of deterrence.

Bonus Question: Are we morally safer in other career fields, leaving the key turning to someone else?

Bonus Answer: We are morally safer working to eliminate all nuclear weapons than to maintain them, assuring that no one has either the capacity or the moral indoctrination to launch these weapons of mass annihilation.

To bolster its argument for the morality of using nuclear weapons, the Air Force training quotes former Nazi rocket scientist Wernher von Braun: “We wanted to see the world spared another conflict such as Germany had just been through, and we felt that only by surrendering such a weapon to people who are guided by the Bible could such an assurance to the world be best secured.”  It is a fine touch to turn to a former Nazi scientist for moral standards.

Captain Charles Nicholls, Electronic Warfare Officer of the 328th Bombardment Squadron, is quoted in the powerpoint as stating: “Each of us in the strategic nuclear deterrence force must establish a moral foundation for our service. Our will to unhesitatingly fulfill our duty will strengthen deterrence, the morally best choice of action to assure peace and freedom.” He calls, in essence, for a moral foundation to unhesitatingly choose the morality of massive nuclear annihilation.

The powerpoint also includes a quote from General Omar Bradley: “Ours is a world of nuclear giants and ethical infants. We know more about war than we know about peace, more about killing than we know about living. We have grasped the mystery of the atom and rejected the Sermon on the Mount.” The Air Force would do well to reflect upon General Bradley’s statement.

The Air Force seems to have been comfortable with attempting to demonstrate its nuclear prowess in combination with its ethical infancy. It has just announced, however, that it has taken this powerpoint out of its curriculum as of late 2011 “to have a good hard look at it and make sure it reflected views of modern society.” It would be a significant step forward if it were to find that society’s views, long after the end of the Cold War, reflected the morality of a desire to urgently achieve the phased, verifiable, irreversible and transparent elimination of nuclear weapons.

David Krieger is the President of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, the author of many studies and hundreds of articles promoting progress toward nuclear disarmament. Learn more at www.wagingpeace.org.

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  • DarrenK23

    wow I never imagined that the government would spend so much effort in coercing those serving to obey a nuclear launch order — but I suppose that ultimately it really would be up to the person who actually pushes the button — which doesn’t make me personally feel any safer than a politician deciding the fate of all of humanity and that of my family 

  • Edgar_garcia

    what a glimpse into the ideology of warmaking ! hmmm makes me think that our own government isn’t even certain when it comes to the use of nukes.

  • Donald_Prather

    very interesting stuff. actually I suppose soldiers have to be brainwashed. the morality of waging a nuclear attack. this really makes me think and I’m very glad that the military is revising the powerpoint. it’s almost ridiculous but then again so much of our policies as a nation are ridiculous in hindsight.