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March 7, 2018
Air Force Reorganizes Nuclear Commands

Kirsten McNeil

In the wake of several highly publicized incidents in which the Air Force failed to properly handle its nuclear mission as well as several subsequent critical reports, the Air Force Oct. 24 released a "Nuclear Roadmap" detailing organizational changes intended to improve its performance.

The changes are intended to restore confidence that the Air Force can properly handle the two legs of the U.S. nuclear triad deterrent that it controls, bombers and ICBMs. The Navy operates the third leg, nuclear-armed ballistic missile submarines.

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates forced the secretary of the Air Force and the service's chief of staff out of office earlier this year after the unauthorized transit of nuclear-armed bombs across the United States in 2007 and the mistaken shipment of nuclear missile parts to Taiwan in 2006 shed light on deficiencies in the management of the nuclear mission.

Under the new roadmap, three distinct centers of power will control Air Force nuclear forces. A new staff directorate in the Pentagon under the Air Force chief of staff has been created. A new Global Strike Command will control all nuclear-capable B-52 and B-2 bombers and ICBMs. The Nuclear Weapons Center at Kirtland Air Force Base, which opened in 2006, will guide all nuclear materiel logistics.

The new directorate, officially named the Strategic Deterrence and Nuclear Integration office and to be known as A10, began operations Nov. 1 led by Maj. Gen. C. Donald Alston. The presence of this headquarters office is expected to give the nuclear mission a continuing high-profile position within Air Force missions as they evolve over time.

All nuclear-capable bombers and ICBM forces will be placed under the new Global Strike Command. The new command is preparing to become operational by September 2009. Its final location is not yet known, but options include Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana or with U.S. Strategic Command at Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska. The Air Force decided to leave the B-1B bombers and Air Force intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance assets where they currently reside so as to concentrate specifically on the strategic B-52 and B-2 bombers and ICBMs under Global Strike Command. The B-1B is not scheduled for further nuclear missions.

The United States maintains the ability to strike targets with nuclear forces. The name of the new Global Strike Command harkens back to past "prompt global strike" plans within the Department of Defense. The prompt global strike idea was promoted to achieve the capability to hit any target on the globe within hours and originally focused on converting nuclear-tipped submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) to carry conventional warheads. Recently, prompt global strike plans have faltered due to budget cuts and lack of congressional support. (See ACT, November 2008.) During a Nov. 12 briefing at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Secretary of the Air Force Michael Donley stated that the new Global Strike Command could support a prompt global strike mission in the future.

The idea of prompt global strike is still receiving attention. In a February 2008 report for the Office of the Secretary of Defense prepared by the RAND Corporation, ballistic missiles were identified as "uniquely capable" of engaging targets within a short response time of less than a few hours, providing capabilities currently lacking in the global strike realm. In this report, they point out that the United States currently has little or no capability to respond with a global strike within an hour. Skeptics of prompt global strike fear that ballistic missiles with conventional warheads might be mistaken for nuclear-tipped missiles by another nuclear-armed country, unintentionally initiating a nuclear exchange.

In a Nov. 14 interview with Arms Control Today, Russian Ambassador to the United States Sergey Kislyak expressed disagreement with this capability, stating, "As to the idea of converting nuclear strategic weapons into conventional weapons, we are very much concerned about this concept." Kislyak said that he does not believe this type of capability would have a stabilizing effect on U.S.-Russian relations or improve Russian security.

A National Research Council report on conventional prompt global strike released Aug. 21 suggests that it is not possible to completely remove the nuclear ambiguity issue but that other measures can be taken so that this is not a reason to stop pursuing the capability. (See ACT, September 2008.) The report found that ballistic missiles (intercontinental or submarine-launched) with conventional warheads could provide a useful addition to prompt global-strike capabilities and "could be of particular value in some important scenarios in that it would eliminate the dilemma of having to choose between responding to a sudden threat either by using nuclear weapons or by not responding at all." Some foreign officials have suggested that conventional missiles launched from ICBM silos, given their fixed launch locations and more predictable trajectories, might be easier to distinguish from SLBMs.

The final leg of the Air Force restructuring is the Nuclear Weapons Center at Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico. The Nuclear Roadmap suggests that the Air Force will be assigning all nuclear materiel logistics to this location and improving positive inventory controls to prevent future mishandling of nuclear weapons components. (See ACT, October 2008.)