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Upward of two-thirds of missileers were "volunteered" for the job after gaining their officer commission. Once they complete basic ICBM training at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, they are sent on four-year tours to one of three missile bases: Minot, Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana, or F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming.
The responsibility is enormous, the cost of mistakes potentially colossal, ranging from environmental damage to inadvertently triggering a nuclear war.
That is why the Air Force has long-established rules, procedures and backup safety systems to minimize the possibility of a major error. Over time, with the passing of the Cold War, the Air Force lost focus on its nuclear mission.
It also lost a good deal of what remained of the allure of serving as a missileer.
"Even during the Cold War while facing down the Soviets, it could be difficult to convince bright young airmen that what they were doing was worthwhile," Robert W. Stanley II wrote in a research paper in 2011 before becoming vice commander of the 341st Missile Wing at Malmstrom. Last year he was promoted to commander there but resigned in March 2014 amid a scandal over exam cheating among his missileers.
In his paper, "Reviving a Culture of Disciplined Compliance in Air Force Nuclear Operations," Stanley called for missileer incentive pay.
"In trying to demonstrate that nuclear duty is not a dying career field, and one worthy of top personnel," he wrote, "no message could be more tangible than monetary reward."
The Air Force is heeding that advice. Starting in October, it will offer entry bonuses to newly trained missileers, as well as "duty pay" for security forces, missileers and others who operate in the missile fields. A nuclear weapons service medal will also be offered as part of an intensified effort to make the career field more attractive.