Washington: The hundreds of nuclear missiles that have stood war-ready for decades in underground silos along remote stretches of America, silent and unseen, packed with almost unimaginable destructive power, are a force in distress, if not in decline.
They are still a fearsome superpower symbol, primed to unleash nuclear hell on a moment`s notice at any hour of any day, capable of obliterating people and places halfway around the globe if a president so orders.
But the number of intercontinental ballistic missiles, or ICBMs, is dwindling, their future defense role is in doubt, and missteps and leadership lapses documented by The Associated Press this year have raised questions about how the force is managed.
The AP revealed one missile officer`s lament of "rot" inside the force, and an independent assessment for the Air Force found signs of "burnout" among missile launch crews.
It also disclosed that four ICBM launch officers were disciplined this year for violating security rules by opening the blast door to their underground command post while one crew member was asleep.
After one of the Air Force`s three ICBM groups failed a safety and security inspection in August, Republican Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said it was time for the Air Force to refocus on its ICBM responsibilities and to "recommit itself from the top down" to safe nuclear operations. Air Force leaders say the nuclear mission already is a priority and that the missiles are safe and secure.
Gen. Mark Welsh, the Air Force`s top officer, told the AP in November that since 2008, "the No. 1 focus area, the No. 1 priority for the US Air Force has been to restore and strengthen the nuclear enterprise."
Once called America`s "ace in the hole," the ICBM is the card never played. None has ever been fired in anger. Some say that proves its enduring value as a deterrent to war. To others it suggests the weapon is a relic.
Its potential for mass destruction nonetheless demands that it be handled and maintained with enormous care and strict discipline for as long as US leaders keep it on launch-ready status.
Today it is the topic of a debate engaged by relatively few Americans: What role should ICBMs play in US defence, and at what financial cost, given a security scene dominated by terrorism, cyberthreats and the spread of nuclear technologies to Iran and North Korea?