What’s Going On With The Commanders Of The U.S. Nuclear Force?

Another top General in charge of much of the nation’s nuclear weapons force has been sacked:

First it was bad attitudes among young officers in nuclear missile launch centers. Now it’s alleged bad behavior by two of the nuclear arsenal’s top commanders.

Together the missteps spell trouble for a nuclear force doubted by some for its relevance, defended by others as vital to national security and now compelled to explain how the firing of key commanders this week should not shake public confidence.

The Air Force on Friday fired Maj. Gen. Michael Carey, who was in charge of its nuclear missiles. Two days earlier the Navy sacked Vice Adm. Tim Giardina, the second-in-command at U.S. Strategic Command, which writes the military’s nuclear war plans and would transmit launch orders should the nation ever go to nuclear war.

In an Associated Press interview Friday, the nation’s most senior nuclear commander, Air Force Gen. Robert Kehler, said he told his bosses, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and the Joint Chiefs chairman, Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, that despite the two “unfortunate behavioral incidents,” the nuclear force is stable.

“I still have 100 percent confidence that the nation’s nuclear deterrent force is safe, secure and effective,” Kehler said from his Strategic Command headquarters in Nebraska.

Together, the Carey and Giardina dismissals add a new dimension to a set of serious problems facing the military’s nuclear force.

The ICBM segment in particular has had several recent setbacks, including a failed safety and security inspection at a base in Montana in August, followed by the firing of the colonel there in charge of security forces. In May, The Associated Press revealed that 17 Minuteman 3 missile launch control officers at Minot Air Force Base, N.D., had been taken off duty in a reflection of what one officer there called “rot” inside the ICBM force.


On Friday the Air Force removed Maj. Gen. Michael Carey, a 35-year veteran, from his command of 20th Air Force, responsible for all 450 of the service’s intercontinental ballistic missiles. Carey, who took his post in June 2012, will be reassigned pending the outcome of an investigation into personal misbehavior, the service said.

The Air Force would not specify what Carey did to get fired, but two officials with knowledge of the investigation indicated that it was linked to alcohol use.

On Wednesday the Navy said Giardina was relieved of command amid an investigation of gambling issues. He was demoted from three- to two-star rank and reassigned to a Navy staff job until the Naval Criminal Investigative Service probe is completed.

This isn’t the first shakeup in the nation’s nuclear forces this year. Back in July, I noted that seventeen Air Force officers had been stripped of their authority to launch missiles after a review of their unit’s effectiveness came back with a very unsatisfactory rating. Whether this is connected to that incident, or to other similar incidents of declining effectiveness in this part off the nation’s defenses. As I asked back then, one wonders if this is a symptom of the fact that this part of the military has, in some sense, become less important than it was during the Cold War. Is complacency leading to ineffectiveness?

We’ll likely never know for sure what the latest actions were all about, but it strikes me that this ought to be something that Congress should look into.

H/T: Stephen Green

FILED UNDER: Military Affairs, National Security, , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Surreal American says:

    Something nefarious by the Kenyan usurper no doubt.

  2. We’ll likely never know for sure what the latest actions were all about, but it strikes me that this ought to be something that Congress should look into.

    Like we’ll ever get straight answers from this crew of jokers.

  3. Andy says:


    All this really stems from two incidents a while ago – the mistaken transport of nuclear weapons on B-52’s and the mistaken transfer of ICBM components to Taiwan. Those incidents led to the firing of the Air Force Chief of Staff as well as the Secretary of the Air Force. Since that time, the “nuclear enterprise” as it’s called, has re-instituted the kind of “zero defect” culture that existed during the Cold War. What you’re seeing here is the effect of that.

  4. Ron Beasley says:

    I think this is a good time to simply do away with the Air Force and divide it’s responsibilities between the Navy and the Army. We eliminate some redundancy and save some money. Of course Colorado will be unhappy when the Air Force Academy closes.

  5. Tyrell says:

    Is the US Strategic Command the same as what used to be called SAC ?

  6. walt moffett says:


    It absorbed SAC, the Navy’s boomers and other groups. More info at its homepage. From here it sounds a way to keep the brass employed.

    In a way, its too bad we can’t negotiate away the land and air based nukes putting some on new built subs. However the politics aren’t there.

  7. Tyrell says:

    @walt moffett: But do they still have all those B-52’s flying up in the stratosphere guarding the country against a possible Russian attack? When I was a child, I always felt safer knowing they were up there protecting us.

  8. walt moffett says:


    Those retaliation flights ended in 1968 or thereabouts, alerts (with armed aircraft) are now pulled on the ground. Remember the US has pledged no first use of nuclear weapons

  9. RGardner says:

    @walt moffett

    It [STRATCOM] absorbed SAC, the Navy’s boomers and other groups.

    Incorrect. STRATCOM took over US-JSTPS in 1992 (US Joint Strategic Targeting and Planning (system?)) – AKA the Air Room, located in the deepest dungeon basement under the SAC Building (Building 500 at Offutt AFB, down the rabbit hole), that was lead by a NAVY Admiral (2 or 3 star, I don’t remember) since the 1960s. Most of the functions of SAC went to Air Combat Command in Langley VA (to include all of the USAF Service functions: organize, train and equip). Same building, totally different function.

    Now, many of the civilian staff did compete for positions in the new command as they were from Omaha and had little desire to move to VA (similar to how Northcom was staffed from former SpaceCom staffers in Colorade Springs, not wanting to move to Omaha when it was absorbed by STRATCOM). Your average Gs-5/6/7 administrative person isn’t about to move. Ditto higher GS ranks. Even the SAC Historians (PhDs) stayed in Omaha and transferred their files to Langley VA.


    But do they still have all those B-52′s flying up in the stratosphere guarding the country against a possible Russian attack?

    That ended over 20-30 years ago, along with MITO Launches (Minimum Interval Takeoff – get them in the air, the Russians are coming). BTW, USAF nuclear bombers mostly launch nuclear cruise missiles (not gravity bombs).

    For completeness, what I remember that USSTRATCOM took over:

    – OSD/JCS Nuclear Coordination responsibilities (moving stuff from DC to Omaha)
    – JSTPS functions – coordination between the legs of the Triad (J52 Air Room)
    – SAC coordination of the National Military Command Centers (particularly with respect to Y2K issues) and Joint C3I/C4I. This was huge and mostly forgotten today becuse they did their job (lots of COBOL and Rocky Mountain Basic programming that had to be updated) – this mostly went away
    – USCINCPAC and USCINCLANT nuclear responsibilities. One centralized nuclear authority (no need to duplicate)
    – Operational control of the ABNCP/NAOC (eventually). The doomsday planes. No longer a USAF function, but a Joint function.
    – JIC – lots of intel folks in a cheaper living area than the Beltway
    – Oversight of the Services’ Organize, Train and Equip responsibilities from DC (OSD/JCS) under Goldwater/Nichols


    All this really stems from two incidents a while ago – the mistaken transport of nuclear weapons on B-52′s and the mistaken transfer of ICBM components to Taiwan.

    That does not explain VADM Tim Giardina’s (#2 at STRATCOM) reported passing of fake chips at the casino in Council Bluffs this year (where the dog track used to be). Nukes are a misbegotten step-child, whose standards are amazingly higher. I’m not willing to make a mistake with nukes, you apparently are. I’ll readily admit “things” and standards can be improved with the times (the security clearance system is a joke, lets interview the neighbor in the apartment complex), but this is not a zero tolerance issue.

    I was in the second generation of staffers at STRATCOM (Navy – and I worked command relations and policy). Our biggest peeve was folks thinking we were related to SAC (mostly from USAF folks). Same building, different mission. Admiral Hank Chiles was instrumental in ensuring USSTRATCOM was not SAC.

  10. Tyrell says:

    That really is fascinating and great information. Do you know of any good books (fiction or non) about all of that? How about websites and apps ? Is any of that connected to NORAD?

  11. walt moffett says:


    Try this paper, A New Era: From SAC to STRATCOM at fas and after packing a lunch, look up Operation Chrome Dome at Wikipedia, following the links as they come up.

  12. Jenos Idanian #13 says:

    @walt moffett: Remember the US has pledged no first use of nuclear weapons

    Are you sure about that? I thought that we kept that ambiguous. I know for a while we lumped all WMDs into one category as far as first use and retaliation went, but I don’t recall that policy officially changing.

    It wouldn’t surprise me if Clinton or Obama had changed that from an ambiguous policy to a clear one, but I really don’t recall that changing.