Have the USA’s armed forces lost their edge?

Austin Bay has written a very interesting (and very worrying) appraisal of morale and structural problems in the USAF’s strategic missile forces.  Here’s an excerpt from his analysis.

The latest assessment concludes that the problems persist because so much of the equipment on these missile bases is so old that many components are no longer made and the shrinking air force budget cannot meet demands for expensive improvisations. As a result the missile bases are considered a bad assignment because so much stuff is ancient and breaking down. All this was made worse by the post-Cold War air force leadership stressing “zero defects”, micromanagement and political correctness. This stuff made matters worse at the missile bases. These three items made it particularly difficult to admit that they were key problems and as a result morale among officers and airmen was low and staying low because despite the headlines about “fixing the problem” things got worse, especially when it came to living and working conditions in these rural bases. The problems were particularly harsh during cold weather, which in this area, near the Canadian border, have always been a challenge.

The problems got so bad that in the last few years that some officers were punished for being too harsh in their efforts to improve discipline and performance of subordinates. While Air Force commanders want discipline and performance improved in the missile forces, it must be achieved in a politically correct manner. That, the latest analysis of the situation concluded, had become a major part of the problem and a massive obstacle to any solutions.

By 2012 a growing number of Minuteman launch officers were suspended from launch duty for months at a time so they could receive more training and new procedures developed and implemented to ensure that all regulations were being followed. There was apparently a breakdown in training and leadership in their squadron (which controls 50 silos) and wing (which controls three squadrons). Air force leadership also believes that there is still an attitude problem among those who maintain and operate the ICBMs.

. . .

Now the air force finds itself with a morale and performance problem that has gotten worse. Despite studies showing that commercial firms had found ways to solve similar problems the generals put in charge of the nuclear weapons have not, so far, accepted this as a solution and continued to insist that the problem is not as bad as it appears (it is) and that they have it under control (they don’t). The most senior air force management is somewhat aware of how this has gone off the rails but continue to have problems dealing with it.

. . .

But there was another problem. The air force has lost its appetite for improvising and coming up with practical solutions for any problems encountered. The officers and NCOs who staffed SAC in the early years were World War II veterans had understood the need to be quick and practical at detecting and fixing problems. They were replaced with a generation of Vietnam War vets but by the 1990s these were all gone and solutions tended to be more bureaucratic and “cover your ass” than practical. So while the SAC attitudes may be back, the mentality that made those hard-ass attitudes motivate people are not there. It turned out it was all an “attitude problem” and it was the senior leaders who were most responsible. Still no sign of a fundamental change and out on the northern prairie airmen still struggle to make a broken system work.

There’s a lot more at the link.  If you’re interested in military affairs and strategic deterrence, it’s well worth your time to click over there and read the whole thing.

The problem is, of course, symptomatic of a wider issue:  the politically correct makeover of the US armed forces as a whole.  Speaking as a combat veteran, I know full well that the job of an armed force is to break things and kill people on command.  It’s as simple as that.  There’s no politically correct way to sugar-coat that reality . . . but politicians keep trying to do so.  They also prefer to spend money on things that garner votes for them, like entitlement programs, rather than on expensive military hardware that may, or may not, be needed.

The Obama administration in particular (with the active cooperation of both parties in Congress and the Senate) has cut military spending so much that, as I write these words, the US Navy currently has no aircraft carriers at sea at all.  Many of its ships are months or even years behind in scheduled maintenance, because there’s no money available to pay for it.  Similarly, much of the equipment of the US Army and US Marine Corps is in urgent need of modernization., and the US Air Force’s aircraft have an average age of no less than 27 years.  They’re wearing out.  (Last year, the USAF and the Marines had to raid aircraft in museums, taking parts off them to repair aircraft in active service, because their stocks of spares were so denuded.  If that doesn’t speak volumes, I don’t know what does!)  The upper command structures of our armed forces have also been filled with general and flag officers whose views were considered politically acceptable by the outgoing administration.  That doesn’t fill me with confidence in their military abilities.

I hope and trust that President-elect Trump and his nominee for Secretary of Defense, retired General Mattis, will be able to turn things around;  but that can’t happen overnight.  The Obama administration has left our defenses in a parlous state.  It’ll take time to restore them to what they should be.  I hope our adversaries give us that time . . . because if they don’t, there won’t be much we can do about it in the short term.

If anyone’s hearing echoes of the situation in 1941, you’re not alone.  Let’s hope we’re all wrong.



  1. A fish rots from its head. That is all one needs to know about the US military today. Every decent senior officer has left or been forced out. SecDef Mattis has an enormously difficult task in front of him, equivalent to the Augean Stables of Hercules legend. But if there's anyone still around who can "git 'er done", it's Mad Dog.

  2. If we're raiding museums to get parts for active service aircraft – and this isn't the first place I've heard about that – then this isn't 1941. It's sometime during the great depression.

    Yeah, I don't like writing that, either.

  3. There was a morale problem in 1990 when I had the misfortune to be assigned to Minot. SAC was enormously bureaucratic, very micromanaging (understandable and necessary when dealing with nukes, but they managed to take it to extremes), and, of course, zero-defects. It was known as a personnel sink — unpopular and people tended to get out rather than reenlist. Not least because since it was a personnel sink, once stationed at a missile base, the odds were that your next assignment would be at another missile base. And political correctness was definitely already "a thinng".

    I remember my trip down into a launch control center and being struck by the computer's 64k core memory unit being 70-lb, and the 8" floppy disks. However, they worked and were more than good enough. But 26 years later, they've still got the same 1970-vintage equipment and it must be a maintenance nightmare just from age, even if the technology is more than adequate for the missiles they're matched to. New missiles would be A Good Thing, but the current procurement system is hopelessly broken, and I've little faith that we'do see replacements in less than 20 years and costing 400% more in the end than originally contracted. And they might be terrible missiles after all that.

    I'm afraid the Obama Administration's attitude toward the military has been, "Gut 'er. Done."

  4. For what it's worth, during the later stages of the US Space Shuttle program they were doing much the same thing. Scavenging parts from one or more of the Shuttle fleet to keep current and next flight hardware operational. And I know of one embarrassing incident where NASA had to request the return of hardware that had been donated to the Alabama Space and Rocket Center to reuse space rated elements. They did replace what they took with cheap mockups however, so other than an admission of how close to the bone the program was running no harm no foul.

  5. Uncle Lar, thanks for the post. Wasn't aware of NASA having to do that.

    In both that case and the current shortages, at least part of the problem is with systems that have been stretched far past their intended lifespans. The Shuttle was never intended to be a long-term production system – it was a testbed to iron out the concept and fly for a few years. It was never what they tried to make it, the the DC-3 for space transportation. But the bureaucrats got hold of it and insisted on keeping it to keep all those fat contracts.

    All the services have platforms that are well past their sell-by dates. The people involved on the ground who keep them serviced do amazing things every day to meet availability goals. There are teams that have done great work in improving and discovering fixes that keep platforms like the B-52 running. The BUFF is the poster child for this, a plane that's literally older than it's crews. But you can only stretch the idea so far.

    And as for the CVN deployment? Caused by the Senate deciding not to fund the maintenance. For the Navy, especially for the carrier force, that is damn near disastrous. A Carrier's maintenance schedule is literally planned out while it's being built. When the Senate decided not to guarantee the funds, the Navy had to defer the RCOH for USS Abraham Lincoln. RCOH is a teardown, rebuild, and improvement job for a carrier that happens when it's 25 years old. It takes four years to do one. They cut holes in the ship to replace large equipment (such as the old printer/copier in the division my father was the LCPO of. It was two decades out of date but because it was 4'x9'x5' they had to wait until RCOH to replace it.) There is only one location where the work can be done, due to the reactor maintenance and refuel process. Deferring RCOH will impact CVN availability, maintenance and possibly commissioning for the next decade or more.

  6. It doesn't help that we've been burning through our military capacities for decades now fighting one hopelessly mismanaged and now pointless war and one so monumentally stupid it will go down as one of the most disastrous strategic blunders in U.S. history. We've also been blowing enormous amounts of money defending nations who aren't a critical strategic interest to the U.S. or who could easily defend themselves. Clean house at the Pentagon, relentlessly rip political correctness and embedded SJWs in the military out by the roots, weed out the corruption in the MIC and start using the military for its proper role. Protecting and defending the United States. Provide the military with the unparalleled ability to kill people and break things anywhere anytime when duly authorized by congress and ordered by the president to do so.

    One heartening thing so far to come from Trump is his intention to rebuild our nuclear forces. Our deterrent while upgraded is still ancient and no one really knows 100% for sure if it will function if God forbid it ever needs to be used. Our ICBMs have been modernized but are at their core very old designs. Our newest warheads are using nuclear materials decades beyond their original designed use by dates. Air delivered weapons are also getting quite elderly and are largest multi-megaton weapons were withdrawn from service with no replacement. Our SLBMs are still fairly fresh but the warhead design, our newest and best as I understand, had basically its entire design stolen and compromised by the Chinese. Hopefully Trump is able to get our deterrent on the road to modernization. Likewise hopefully he can end this stupid warmongering and pointless antagonism against Russia so he can work a deal with the Russians to allow a mutually agreed to underground test series so that both nations can know that their weapons work and are safe.

  7. The fact remains, difficult as it is for non-military to comprehend, that the purpose of the military – any military – is to kill people and break things, as rapidly, efficiently and thoroughly as possible, and anything that interferes with that mission constitutes willful degradation of what militaries are for. And they are most assuredly not laboratories for social engineering.

    Civilian control of the military, as our Constitution stipulates, is a Good Thing; civilian micro-management of the military is not, nor is imposition of non-military ideas, beliefs and fantasies upon those charged with execution of The Mission. A great deal of that $@#& has adopted voluntarily by Those Attempting To Please, because The Mission has been corrupted from "Messeth Not With Me For I will Kill Thee And All Whom Thy Know And I Will Do It Right Freaking Now" to "How Can I Use This To Make Myself Look Good" mixed with "Maybe If I Pretend I Can Pose A Credible Threat To You, You Will Behave. Pretty Please."

    Boys always have been bigger and stronger than girls, and that will continue; boys have also always been more aggressive than girls and that will also continue, and boys always have, and will continue to, strive for real-world, identifiable accomplishments as the measure of their worth (which is why we have things like skyscrapers, suspension bridges, jet aircraft, penicillin and polio vaccine); men conquer, women civilize. It's been that way since the first two humans.

    That's not a call for an all-male military, but it is a mandate to not let extraneous forces infect and corrupt it, especially regarding The Mission. A number of years ago Kim duToit wrote an essay on his now gone (and much missed) blog titled "The Pussification of America," a harbinger of the feminization liberalism has inflicted upon our whole society. There really are some things women cannot do as well as men, and there really are things some men do better than other men. And there are some things women do better. It's very beneficial to not get those things confused, and frequently very much less than ideal when they are; women are quite capable at flying aircraft, crewing an Abrams or a Red Shirt on the deck, not so much.

    How is this related to the postponement of aircraft carrier maintenance and sacrifice of parts and training for nearly everything else? Mission corruption. When The Powers That Be – and that includes not just the politicians in Congress (and the White House as well) who want to bring home the bacon for their district or state, but the military "leadership" who are eager to assist them in that endeavor because it increases the size of their "kingdom."

    What is really unfortunate is that this is entirely a self-inflicted wound; whether it's a recoverable wound or a mortal one remains to be seen. If it is correctable, it's not something we can fix by stockpiling freeze-dried food and ammunition – the solution lies in redirecting our society back within its reality-based borders.

  8. One part of the morale problem for those at Minot might have to do with the city leaders. By and large the city supports the AFB well, but there tend to be some very prudish people that end up on the city council. For decades the city was around 30-35K, and supported two to three strip clubs. In the last decade the population has ballooned to about 50K with influx of all the oil activity, but they are down to one strip club, and the city leaders would dearly love to see that one close down as well.

    Most people looking for entertainment would consider Minot the a**hole of Hell. There are no major sports franchises. If you don't like high school or D-II college sports, there's a semi-pro hockey team. The closest pro teams are an independent minor league baseball team in Fargo, or a CFL franchise in Regina, SK, both of which are a little over 4 hours away. Minneapolis (~8 hours away) is the closest for any of the major pro-sports leagues (NFL, MLB, NBA)or D-1 FBS schools.

    There's some good hunting and fishing in the area, but no skiing (except cross country). There are some bars, but unless you like country there isn't much for dancing. There's a municipal orchestra, but nothing to draw major musical acts to the area outside of the State Fair and the Norsk Hostfest (and those tend to cater to and older and/or country audience as well).

    To top it off, the air force seems to take particular glee in sending people stationed at Minot to places like Guam and Diego Garcia.

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