Ukraine is another black swan

I was a nuclear missile launch officer in the 1990s. A new Cold War may have just begun.

April 18, 2022 2:00 pm

ICBM missiles sit on display at The National Museum of the U.S. Air Force Sept. 4, 2019, at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio. Airmen from F.E. Warren Air Force Base, Wyo., visited the museum to learn more about the heritage behind the ICBM mission. (Senior Airmen Abbigayle Williams/U.S. Air Force/Public domain)

A “black swan” is a highly improbable event that is generally unpredictable and carries an outsized impact. Black swans require us to rethink old assumptions. In other words, the rules that applied before the black swan may no longer apply afterward. After enduring the COVID-19 black swan for some two years we were thrust into yet another with the Russian invasion of Ukraine, on Feb. 24.

During the early 1990s (1991-95), I served as an Air Force missile launch officer at Grand Forks Air Force Base in North Dakota. At that time the Soviet Union still existed, and part of our nation’s constant vigilance included (and still does) nuclear deterrence. One leg of our nuclear deterrent “triad” consists of intercontinental ballistic missiles — ICBMs — along with strategic bombers and submarine-launched ballistic missiles  or SLBMs.


Assigned to the 321st Strategic Missile Wing’s 446th Missile Squadron, I started my first 24-hour “alert” in an underground launch control center on Oct. 23, 1991. There were 150 Minuteman III ICBMs buried in hardened silos beneath the rolling plains of eastern North Dakota then, a substantial nuclear arsenal that was monitored 24/7 by missile launch officers who were (and still are) responsible for launching them in the event of a nuclear conflict.

During late 1991 the Soviet Union collapsed, the Cold War ended and the ominous nuclear threat declined, although we still have 450 ICBMs in the Great Plains region. As the push for democracy in Eastern Europe accelerated, the Soviet Union’s republics began breaking away, forcing then President Mikhail Gorbachev to resign on Dec. 25, 1991.

Cold War redux

In his final act, Gorbachev stepped down as commander in chief and transferred control of the country’s nuclear arsenal to President Boris Yeltsin of Russia. With a stroke of a pen, the Soviet era had ended. No one knew at the time what the “restructuring” of perestroika would look like. No one sensed that this restructuring would lead to unprovoked attacks on Ukraine’s citizens by President Vladimir Putin’s Russian military and KGB.

On April 18, 1995, I completed my last (and 266th) alert. Almost three-quarters of a year spent underground in launch control centers. Three-plus years later I was living in Colorado and during July 2005 I visited Russia to climb Europe’s highest peak, Mount Elbrus (18,510 ft.). After summiting Elbrus, we flew to Moscow to see Red Square, the Kremlin and other sights. Later, during 2006, I was part of a Russian-led climbing expedition on the north/Tibet side of Mount Everest.

Although my Cold War military service and limited exposure to Russia and Russians does not provide me with any deep insights about the country and its people, during March 2020 The Wall Street Journal noted that corruption has flourished at every level of the Russian state under Putin: “The country ranks 137 out of 180 in Transparency International’s 2019 Corruption Perceptions Index. That’s a regression from 82 when he took office.”

Recently my wife, Melinda, and I visited the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force in Dayton, Ohio. One of the museum’s massive galleries, the “Missile Gallery,” is contained in a silo-like structure that stands 140 feet high where visitors can view ICBMs. Stark reminders of a Cold War that ended over 30 years ago and of another that may have just begun.

February 24

As my friend, former U.S. Air Force missile launch officer and retired Col. Todd Laughman said: “I support Ukraine as I did for Georgia in 2008 … And as I would have for … France in 1940 … Freedom loving peoples must stand with Ukraine for the long term.”

As we’ve learned from COVID and, now, Russia’s Ukraine invasion, black swans are akin to raging storms. As the old saying goes, “The good seaman weathers the storm he cannot avoid and avoids the storm he cannot weather.” Unfortunately, nothing more concisely encapsulates a raging storm we cannot avoid than Putin’s Ukraine invasion.

We’ve fought in two world wars and numerous other conflicts to try and give the people of the world a shot at having or preserving the same freedoms that we enjoy in the United States. The least we can do is continue to support the people of Ukraine in their fight for those same freedoms. However, as Vladimir Putin and others like him have tragically taught us, no democracy is safe from a potential return to autocracy. Another potential black swan.


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David Lien
David Lien

David Lien of Colorado Springs is a former Air Force officer and co-chairman of the Colorado Backcountry Hunters & Anglers. He’s the author of “Hunting for Experience: Tales of Hunting & Habitat Conservation” and during 2014 was recognized by Field & Stream as a “Hero of Conservation.”