Being in control of U.S. nuclear weapons taught Riley Vann how to cope—and maintain leadership—under pressure

As a U.S. Air Force Nuclear and Missile Operations officer, Vann was one of 90 missileers overseeing the country's ballistic missiles

Seventy to 80 feet underground for 24 hours at a time in a room less than 200 feet square, for more than two years Lt. Riley Vann ’22 kept careful watch over 50 Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) with nuclear capabilities that are part of the United States’ nuclear weapon defense force.

As a U.S. Air Force Nuclear and Missile Operations officer, or missileer, Vann, who matriculated at Harvard Law School this year, was one of 90 missileers on duty at any given time in 45 command sites in North Dakota, Montana, and Wyoming. Working in two-person teams, missileers are charged with guarding and maintaining the country’s 450 ICBMs. And, should the order come from the president, they are tasked with helping launch them.

“People will ask me what I did [in the Air Force], and when I say I tell them, the reaction is, ‘Holy cow, I didn’t know we have people who do that!” says Vann, who remains active duty for the next three years while at HLS. Almost inevitably, their next question is whether Vann could have gone rogue and launched nuclear weapons by herself.

If I could tell people one thing, it would be that I’m a person just like you who has interests and is super passionate about my chosen career path

Lt. Riley Vann ’22, U.S. Air Force

“It’s very puzzling that people always ask me, ‘Were you tempted to push the red button and launch?’ You would be amazed at how many people think that’s the way it works,” says Vann. “There’s one very important point I want to make, which is that there is no big red button!”

In fact, a launch requires a multi-step process with numerous safeguards, known as copy, decode, validate, authenticate. At the beginning of each shift, each member of the two-person team fastens a padlock onto a safe that contains the launch codes. If an apparent launch order comes in, each of them must agree to open her padlock with a combination only she knows. Inside the safe is a code that must match the code of the incoming launch order, but the code has two parts, and neither missileer knows both of them. The safe can’t be opened, and the incoming code cannot be verified, unless both team members work together. In that case, they must simultaneously enter an “enable” code. Then each must turn a launch key—both keys are stored in the safe—at the same time. Still, the missiles won’t launch unless at least one other capsule in the five-capsule squadron also agrees to launch, at which point 50 or more ICBMs would blast off toward their target. “There are so many fail safes,” says Vann.

While on an underground “alert,” Vann worked in a two-person team to coordinate maintenance and security of $210 million in nuclear weapons and technology, and tracked the readiness of the equipment—and 89 military personnel. It was an enormous responsibility for a 22-year-old, which is precisely why Vann, a graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy, grew to love the work.

“Definitely at times it was very stressful, and there were times that were boring, I suppose,” she says. “But it really taught you how to cope under pressure and how to maintain leadership while under pressure.”

During her two-year tenure at Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota, Vann pulled 171 alerts, the most memorable a 72-hour alert when it snowed so much there was no way for the relief crew to get to her capsule. “We were underground for three days,” says Vann.

Vann’s military service came as a surprise to herself and her family, which included no military veterans. From the Chicago suburbs, Vann, a superb pole vaulter, was recruited for the track team by the U.S. Air Force Academy. “I took the official visit and when I got to the Academy, I was surprised at how normal everyone was,” says Vann, with a laugh. “I didn’t want to regret not doing it, and I knew if it was not the correct fit I could leave. I ended up loving it. I liked the structure and the idea that everyone was there for a similar purpose: to serve.”

After graduating in 2016, Vann—who figured she was a natural for an intelligence assignment, since she’s fluent in Russian—learned she was to become a missileer, for which the Air Force was selecting candidates from the top of the class (Vann was in the top 10 percent of her class), especially women. “I was surprised and not very happy,” she recalls.  “Of course, now in retrospect, I’m so grateful because of the experience. It’s such an important field, and the level of leadership and responsibility you’re given at such a young age, I had no idea that would mean so much to me.”

Following nine months of training at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, Vann headed to Minot, where she developed an interest in the policy side of the nuclear program and decided to go to law school. The long hours underground provided plenty of time to study for the LSAT, and Vann also started a blog—www.rileyv.com—about her military work, her goal of joining the Judge Advocate General’s Corps, and, now, her time at HLS.

Vann’s HLS education is paid for by the Air Force and the Black Family Fellowship at the Center for Public Leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School, a leadership program for military veterans. At HLS, she says she is particularly inspired by Professor Gabriella Blum LL.M. ’01 S.J.D. ’03, an expert in international law and counterterrorism who served in the Israeli military before becoming a policy adviser to the Israel Defense Forces. After she graduates HLS, Vann—who met her husband, Capt. Benjamin Persian, at the Air Force Academy—will return to the Air Force full-time as a JAG officer.

Vann, who volunteers advising high school students and airmen to apply to the Air Force Academy, was a four-time winner of an Academy award for those in the top 5 percent in fitness. She has taken up hot yoga and is training for a marathon this year.

“If I could tell people one thing, it would be that I’m a person just like you who has interests and is super passionate about my chosen career path,” says Vann, whose husband will be assigned to Hanscom Air Force Base in December, so they can be together. If members of the HLS community have questions about her service, she says, “please come ask me because we love to answer you!”