Generational Friction within the USAF Nuclear Enterprise

By Kera Rolsen

The nuclear incidents of the early millennium were an embarrassment for the USAF. In 2007, several nuclear weapons were inadvertently flown from Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota to Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana – representing a serious breach in both protocol and security. In 2014, the nuclear enterprise made headlines again following the release of the details related to a cheating scandal at Malmstrom Air Force Base, home to one of the three Intercontinental Ballistic Missile Wings. The lack of discipline and security in these incidents reduced the credibility and influence of the nuclear enterprise and raised questions regarding the US ability to employ its weapons.

These incidents occurred due to a generational divide within the Air Force. The end of the Cold War brought a shift in the geopolitical landscape; the US faces new foes, new conflicts, and a change in the character of war. Because of these changes, the Air Force focused primarily on conventional warfare against non-peer adversaries and non-state actors. As a result, an entire generation of airmen who had never experienced the Cold War began to inherit the nuclear expertise. If the mishaps and incidents were the results of a generational divide, it begs the question: how will the next generation, known as the Millennials, influence the nuclear enterprise? Answering this question is important because nuclear weapons are the primary weapon of US global deterrence and a major component of the nation’s military power.

This question can be answered by looking at the intersection of organizational culture and generational culture. To comprehend how a single generation can affect the nuclear enterprise, we should examine what is missing from the current organizational culture models.

Many authors have written on the topic of organizational culture and how to repair broken cultures. Three authors in particular focus on the military and organizational culture. The first is Stephen P. Rosen, author of Winning the Next War: Innovation and the Modern Military. Rosen asserts organizations are resistant to change from outside sources and tend to suppress mavericks. He notes organizational innovation comes from “broad structural changes in the security environment in which their organizations would have to fight in the foreseeable future, not by specific capabilities or intentions of potential adversaries.” Rosen sees culture driving strategy with input from well-respected senior leaders. In contrast to Rosen’s view is Barry R. Posen, author of The Sources of Military Doctrine. Posen asserts a balance of power between political leadership informs doctrine, which in turn, shapes organizational culture. Finally, Yuen Foong Khong, author of Analogies at War, offers a third alternative for how organizational culture interacts with strategy. Khong asserts historical experience informs doctrine and doctrine in turn shapes the external environment.

Each of these well-respected authors offers different views of how organizational culture interacts with the external environment. None of these three viewpoints, however, can fully explain the effect Millennials will have on the future of the nuclear enterprise because they overlook the importance of generational culture. What is needed is a framework for incorporating the beliefs and values of generational culture within an organization. By viewing the nuclear mishaps of the early millennium through such a framework, one can see the effect of generational culture and possibly begin to predict how generational culture might influence the nuclear enterprise in the future.

Before exploring how generational culture might influence the nuclear enterprise, it is worthwhile to define some of the basic terminology used when studying a generation. Generation experts refer to generational groups, or cohorts, by a discreet name like “Baby Boom” or “Millennial.” These names help identify and separate the generations from one another. Some scholars argue that birth years are not the only factor that defines a generational cohort. Claire Raines, noted generation scholar, defines a generation as “a group of people who are pro­grammed at about the same time.” Raines, as well as Neil Howe and William Strauss, the authors of Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation, all argue the events, nature of media, and culture found in the generation’s formative years shape each generation’s characteristics. The generations referenced in this paper, however, are defined by their birth year: the Silent Generation, Baby Boom Generation, Generation X, Millennials, and Generation Z. Of these five cohorts, three represent the majority of airmen serving in the Air Force today. Table 1 depicts each cohort, their age in 2017, and their expected level of rank.

Table 1: Generations and their current stages of life.

Cohort Birth Years Age (2017) Rank Level
Silent Generation 1928 – 1945 72 – 89 N/A
Baby Boom 1946 – 1964 53 – 71 Senior (O-7+, E-8+)
Generation X 1965 – 1979 38 – 52 Middle (O-4 to O-6, E-5 to E-7)
Millennials 1980 – 2000 17 – 37 Junior (O-1 to O-3, E-1 to E-4)
Generation Z 2001 – now 0 – 16 N/A

Source: Author’s Original Work

Today, airmen belong to one of three cohorts: Baby Boom, Generation X, and Millennials. (Generation Z is theoretically eligible for military service with a parental signature in 2017 but represents a statistically insignificant number of service members.) These three cohorts correlate to three levels of rank: senior, mid-level, and junior. Current senior ranking officers (O-7 and above) in the USAF predominantly belong to the Baby Boom cohort (Boomers). Most mid-level ranking airmen (O-4 to O-6) belong to the Generation X cohort (GenX). Finally, most junior ranking airmen (O-1 to O-3, with some O-4 as of 2017) belong to the Millennial cohort (Millennials). Each of these three generational cohorts has a distinct set of values and beliefs. These values and beliefs, in turn, influence their perceptions and decisions related to the nuclear enterprise.

The Millennials have distant memories of the Cold War and nuclear deterrence theory is of little importance. Timing means Millennials did not form their adult perspective on the Cold War and the nuclear enterprise during the Cold War. Their timing combined with generational characteristics have a direct impact on the Millennial perspective with regards to nuclear deterrence and the nuclear enterprise. They also reflect the conflict events that shaped the Millennials’ formative early adulthood: the events of 9/11, the subsequent wars in both Afghanistan and Iraq, and now the conflict in Syria for later Millennials. They have seen primarily conventional (as opposed to nuclear), asymmetric fights against terrorist or extremist groups as well as other non-state actors. The sum of these traits, characteristics, and perspectives is what the author describes as generational culture.

The differences between these generations provide a better understanding for the incidents that occurred between 2007 and 2014. The culture senior leaders attempted to instill within Air Force Global Strike Command (AFGCS) was at odds with the Millennial generation’s values, beliefs, and experience. When AFGSC was activated, senior leaders insisted AFGSC was not Strategic Air Command (SAC) reborn. However, these same senior leaders had served in SAC and those experiences had left an indelible mark on their perspective of the nuclear enterprise. For example, interviews with former personnel indicate a culture of “zero defects” prevailed in SAC. The effect of this culture manifested in the 2014 Malmstrom AFB cheating scandal, a scandal which exposed a group of ICBM officers cheating on monthly nuclear testing. The young officers, almost all Millennials, were caught sharing test answers and the resultant investigation exposed significant cultural and leadership issues within the ICBM community. A report published afterward noted the culture of zero tolerance for failure resulted in senior leaders demanding a zero-defect performance from all ICBM officers. This pressure made many believe any score less than perfect would negatively impact their careers. These officers also believed scores, rather than overall officer performance and ethics, drove promotions. This led to proctors “helping” exam takers and later allowing outright cheating on monthly tests. Even those who were aware of the cheating but did not partake were hesitant to report it due to a perceived fraction between leaders and subordinates. Major General Jack Weinstein, the previous leader of all ICBM forces as the 20th AF commander, spoke on the topic of the zero-failure performance and said it was a cultural artifact leftover from a bygone generation.

The report illuminated many other problems that stem from traditional organizational issues: leadership, doctrine, and strategy combining to create a toxic organizational culture. However, what it lacked is an examination of the cultural divide between generations and the mismatch between the organization’s culture and the external geopolitical environment; what worked for SAC does not work in today’s geopolitical environment. SAC operated in a bi-polar nuclear world in which the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) meant nuclear forces were constantly on alert and had to be ready at a moments’ notice. Now, in a multi-polar world, nuclear forces are off of alert or on a lowered ready status. The USAF is postured for conventional and asymmetric conflicts against nations and non-state actors; the specter of nuclear war is far from the forefront. This reality means the airmen in the nuclear enterprise live in an external environment in which they are no longer the priority. Two generations of officers above them, however, have different historical perspectives and cultures. This mismatch resulted in pressure to meet standards that many viewed as inappropriate given these changes in the geopolitical environment.

One can see from this example how a cultural mismatch and generational differences exacerbated the situation. However, in light of this scandal, there are two valuable lessons to be learned that apply to all military career fields. First is how Millennials view the world around them. In Analogies at War, Yuen Foong Khong describes how political decision makers will often employ historical analogies to conceptualize the character of a given conflict, whether for good or ill. He asserts this study of conflicts through the use of analogies allows policy and decision makers to learn from history, examine what outcomes are possible if the two events bear similarities, and avoid “another X” (where “X” is the most terrible defeat or loss of life in recent memory). For example, in Khong’s book, “X” represents the wars in Korea and Vietnam. These phenomena are behind phrases like “we will remember the Somme,” “9/11, never forget,” and a tendency for strategists and pundits alike to refer to a possible massive future cyber-attack as a “cyber Pearl Harbor.” This phenomenon is consistent across American culture and is not confined to any one generation.

To Millennials, “their” wars started with Operations Iraqi Freedom (OIF) and Enduring Freedom (OEF), both of which began shortly after the Millennial Generation started coming of age. As Khong notes in his book, the events that occur early in a person’s adult life have the strongest impact. Additionally, he describes a generational analogy as a “historical experience that impresses itself upon an entire generation of individuals.” Therefore, Millennials will be most strongly impacted by the wars in the Middle East and Southwest Asia for the last 20 years. These conflicts bear examination to see what lessons Millennials are likely to infer from them as they conceptualize how to shape future strategy. By understanding these conflicts, leaders will understand the mental framework their subordinates are utilizing. It will also help them identify where their organizational culture may be at odds with the current geopolitical environment.

Second, leaders should understand what Millennials value: work/life balance, horizontal organizational structures, and supporting charitable causes. Leaders should strive to understand the generational culture of their officers and work to create a working environment and culture that reflects their values and beliefs within the broader framework of service core values. If subordinates feel they are not a “match” for their organization, they will leave. If too many feel disenfranchised and leave, it could create a severe shortage of qualified airmen, as the USAF is currently facing with its pilot shortage. The nuclear enterprise, the “big stick” of the military instrument of power, is no exception regardless of the generation employing it. The best and newest technology is worthless if there are no qualified personnel to operate it. The USAF and DoD both must strive to find ways to retain these officers, and cannot afford not to make these changes.

Kera “Puff” Rolsen is an Electronic Warfare Officer on the B-52 and has served in a variety of positions at the tactical, operational, and strategic levels of warfighting. She is a graduate of the US Air Force Weapons School and the School of Advanced Air and Space Studies. Most recently she was assigned to the 608th AOC Strategy Division, focused on long-range bomber strategic planning and execution.

All views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Air Force, or the Department of Defense.


  1. Thanks for putting this out there, Puff. Some interesting ideas worth further exploration, but I think the lack of thinking/understanding about nuclear deterrence still has more to do with institutional issues than generational ones. It was, after all, the Silent Generation and the Boomers who, as leaders, de-emphasized deterrence theory in favor of overwhelming conventional force. Millennials raised in this thinking may well have simply carried it on.

    Additionally, using 2017 as a gauge might provide some small insight for future decision making, but it tells nothing of how we got here — which really should be the starting point of any discussion.

    (BTW, the link on “lowered ready status” belies an understanding of how ICBM targeting works. The author is forgiven this, though, since Gen Cartwright’s comments indicate he never really got it either.)

  2. Stephen, I whole heartedly agree that there are some fairly large institutional issues as well but I think that the USAF is working to overcome those without examining the friction between generations. As with any think piece, you take your lens and apply it to a problem, mine is just one of many ways to look at the situation.
    To your point about leaders de-emphasizing deterrence theory for overwhelming conventional force, I agree that it is part of the problem; however, from the research I did, Millennials as a whole are not knowledgeable about nuclear theory, deterrence, or the history that informs how we arrived at the strategies we employ today. It comes down to an idea of inheritance. The Millennials are “inheriting the nuclear problem” from their predecessors without a similar background or common point of reference. This causes them to view the problem set differently and that different view point, coupled with the institutional problems you pointed out, engenders the friction I described. It’s not the whole argument by a long shot, but it opens the aperture just a little more for those in decision making positions to see the problems from yet another angle.

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