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"I want to thank the Arms Control Association … for being such effective advocates for sensible policies to stem the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and most importantly, reduce the risk of nuclear war."
– Senator Joe Biden
January 28, 2004
Report Urges Changes in Air Force Nuke Operations
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Kirsten McNeil

A Department of Defense task force Sept. 12 recommended putting a single official in charge of the Air Force’s nuclear mission as well as other structural and procedural changes in the ways the service handles that mission. The recommendations follow highly publicized incidents involving the mishandling of nuclear warheads and components, reports of lax warhead security, and the dismissal of the Air Force’s top military and civilian leaders. (See ACT, July/August 2008.)

In June, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates appointed the task force headed by one of his predecessors, James Schlesinger. The Sept. 12 report represented the first phase of the panel’s work, which focused solely on the Air Force, responsible for strategic bombers and ICBMs. A second phase will provide recommendations on the entire Defense Department’s handling of nuclear weapons.

The report details how the Air Force has given lower priority to the nuclear mission over time as more pressing conventional priorities have taken precedence. It asserts that this lack of interest helped create the environment for the weapons-handling issues.

Currently, U.S. nuclear forces under Air Force control are spread over 10 Air Force bases and six logistics centers. The 20th Air Force, based out of Wyoming, has responsibility for maintenance and operations of all 450 deployed ICBMs. Strategic bombers are under the 8th Air Force, based out of Louisiana.

The task force recommended putting one person in charge of the nuclear mission, saying it was the lack of central responsibility that led to the handling errors. In addition, the report recommends realigning nuclear bombers and missiles (currently under Air Force Space Command) to an Air Force Strategic Command. This command, it said, should be better aligned with U.S. Strategic Command and provide clear lines of authority and accountability for the nuclear mission.

In March 2006, the Air Force established the Nuclear Weapons Center (NWC) at Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico, and the Schlesinger-led task force recommended consolidating the storage of nuclear weapons there. In addition, the task force recommended placing management of logistics and inventory under the NWC instead of the Defense Logistics Agency. Consolidating responsibility is intended to prevent future handling issues.

By combining all personnel responsible for the management of nuclear weapons into one entity, the task force hopes a stronger culture and ethos will be created. The report recommends the assignment of all bombers to the 8th Air Force, and the removal from the 8th Air Force of several missions that are not bomber related, such as cyberwarfare, intelligence, and surveillance.

To address the relatively lax nuclear culture that has evolved in the Air Force since the end of the Cold War, the task force recommends requiring that nuclear personnel undergo professional military education covering topics of deterrence and defense. Unannounced inspections were recommended to ensure that equipment and procedures were maintained properly. A quarterly review of resource allocation and mission readiness is also recommended to restore confidence in the nuclear deterrent.

The Air Force is currently tracking more than 180 corrective actions stemming from the warhead-mishandling incidents. The recommendations in this report are designed to address more systemic problems that had evolved within the service since the end of the Cold War. However, the authors of the report also point out that it will take sustained leadership and commitment to “restore the culture and ethos of nuclear excellence.”

In addition, on Sept. 25, Acting Secretary of the Air Force Michael Donley announced administrative punishments for six Air Force generals and nine colonels for a mistaken 2006 shipment of four nosecone fuses for nuclear missiles to Taiwan. (See ACT, May 2008.) The officers received disciplinary letters of varying severity for their roles in the episode. This comes several months after Gates fired the secretary and the chief of staff of the Air Force.