In a quiet post-Cold War era, when seemingly futile ‘duck and cover’ civil defence advice and the wail of four-minute warning siren tests are a distant memory, being in charge of America’s nuclear deterrent could be seen as a thankless task.
Even when nuclear warfare is on a backburner, the men and women who handle and maintain the US nuclear arsenal and missile-bearing aircraft put themselves at risk daily and are under a great deal of pressure. Recognising this, back in May, Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James authorised the Nuclear Deterrence Operations Service Medal to recognise their dedication, and now the criteria for receiving one have been released.
Service members may be awarded the medal if they were assigned, deployed or mobilised to a wing, centre or below in support of the USAF nuclear function for 120 consecutive days or 179 non-consecutive days. The medal will be worn with an ‘N’ device for individuals with direct contact with nuclear arms, through working in a missile complex in direct support of intercontinental ballistic missile operations or nuclear laden aircraft. An oak leaf cluster will be added for subsequent awards.
"This service medal provides a clearly visible way to recognise the dedication and professionalism of our Airmen who are the guardians of our nation’s nuclear deterrence. Because of our success, often nuclear deterrence operations can be overlooked as a critical function," said Col. Sannis Pappas, the missile operations career field manager.
Billions of dollars are being spent to upgrade and modernise the US Air Force’s ageing fleet of Cold War strategic bombers.
As well as staff directly subject to a nuclear inspection, those who performed duties in a range of supporting functions are also eligible for the medal. These include less obvious choices such as cyber surety; maintenance; facility management and maintenance; explosive ordnance disposal; weapons loaders; and research, development and acquisition of nuclear systems.
Nominations will be via the usual chain of command, and can be retroactive back to 27 December 1991. Retired or separated service members will be eligible, and the medal will be able to be awarded posthumously.
The bronze medal has not gone into production yet, but the USAF has said it will feature a laurel wreath symbolising achievement, an atomic symbol representing the nuclear surety mission, and a star with a disc representing the Air Force. The medal’s reverse will be embossed with a triangle, alluding to the nuclear triad of land, air and sea-launched nuclear deterrent missiles.
While members of the other armed services have been known to mock airmen for their egos, the morale of America’s nuclear missile community took a hit earlier this year when nine midlevel nuclear commanders were fired following an exam cheating scandal. This new medal serves as recognition that the role of missileers is as important today as it was during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.