Why I love being a missileer

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Patrick Baum
  • 490th Missile Squadron commander
While I was in college I got married and had my first child. My primary focus was supporting my young family. I did a lot of different jobs including fast food, construction and working at Walmart (some at the same time during the summer). I contemplated my future employment prospects and earning potential a lot during those days. My original goal was to ask for a Space and Missiles Specialty Code so I could put my mathematics degree to good use for Lockheed Martin or Boeing after my 4-year service commitment was up. I was enamored and motivated by the idea of making $100,000 plus with four years of Air Force Satellite Control Network experience.

Fast forward five years, three months and eight days after I started my missile crew duty, and my plans for the future had changed considerably. I've been asked by lots of people, "why choose to stay in missiles?" It's a difficult answer to quantify but I made a very clear decision to stay despite the possible impacts to my future promotion potential. While I was a young nuclear missile launch officer (a very cool profession to tell people at your high-school reunion by the way) the path to success involved crew time in missiles, space then major command or some other career broadening endeavor. Few stayed in missiles unless they were ready to accept topping out at Major. Curiously, most of my peers who went to space told me a few years later that they regretted the decision and wished they had stayed.

Outside of the clear strategic value of our weapons, there is a very technical and intellectually fulfilling aspect to missile duty. I know senior NCOs in maintenance who have a master's degree level of knowledge about electronics, electrical systems, heating ventilation and air conditioning, and communications. The missile launch officer's console hides some of the underlying beauty of the system, but it's there for the taking if you look hard enough. I spent my alert hours reading technical data and absorbing as much as I could about the technical aspects of the weapon system, to include the missile and the launch control center. I am intrigued by the physics of launching a weapon half-way around the world in 30 minutes or less. It was only natural to seek selection to the TOP HAND program so I could continue my education.

I was amazed with what I learned there. Despite the long range capabilities of our weapons, it only takes about three minutes of powered flight to get a reentry vehicle on target 4,200 nautical miles away. What appears on the surface to be as simple as a game of darts turns out to be a very complex ballet between the mechanical, electrical and ballistic characteristics of the system. The performance of a single component, even as small as a screw, can shape the outcome and accuracy of the reentry vehicle in the target area. We're very good at it and display our prowess to our allies and adversaries on a regular basis.

I love what I do and I love what my chosen profession brings to national security and the other branches of the military. My father was in the Army for 33 years and if you ask him, he knows that the nuclear deterrent enabled the Global War on Terror. The "ground pounders" in Desert Storm understood deterrence at the lowest tactical level. They knew Hussein was capable, but that our weapons kept him from sliming American soldiers with chemical and biological weapons. Nuclear deterrence works every day - without having to launch even one weapon.

I guess if I had to sum it up in a few words: I love missiles because it's regimented, precise, technical and rewarding. What we - maintenance, security forces, operations and support - do is enable good to triumph over evil. To steal a phrase from the Association of Air Force Missileers, it's a privilege and an honor to be a part of the "Fraternal Order of Subterranean Sentinels."